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Ghani Faces Tough Road Ahead In Taliban Negotiations


Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has embarked on diplomacy and renewed cooperation with regional powers in an effort to restore peace to Afghanistan.

But he still faces major obstacles in negotiating peace with the Taliban, whose insurgency appears to have outlived the 13 year-old U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan and now overshadows the country's future.

Javed Ludin, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister, told RFE/RL Gandhara website that Ghani "has taken a lot of bold steps and taken some risks" because he senses significant opportunities for a breakthrough in the peace process.

"We are not starting from scratch; a lot of work has been done by [the former Afghan] President Hamid Karzai over the past few years," he said. "We have been ready for years now for the ultimate, which is a direct process of negotiations between the verifiable representatives of the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan."

Ludin says that since his inauguration in late September, the Afghan leader has approached China and Saudi Arabia to use their influence over Pakistan.

During his first official trip to Islamabad in November, Ghani visited the headquarters of Pakistan's powerful military and met with military chief General Raheel Sharif to solicit his support for peace in Afghanistan.

"The key shift has to come from the top leadership of Pakistan in their policies towards Afghanistan, and that's where the president's idea is focusing at the moment," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara website.

For years Kabul has urged Islamabad to help in holding negotiations with the Taliban’s leaders, who it believes are orchestrating their insurgency from sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

"If there is any degree of rational thinking in Pakistan, they wouldn't even need any encouragement from a third country," Ludin said. "They only have to see their own future and the future of their own people and what's in their best interest."

Following the December 16 massacre of nearly 150 pupils and teachers in a military-run school in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, Kabul and Islamabad pledged cooperation against "terrorism and extremism." Unlike the past, the two countries have not engaged in public bickering over support to insurgents.

But there is still no indication of whether Islamabad will use its leverage over the Afghan Taliban.

Kabul seems to be divided about the prospects of peace talks with the Taliban. Last week a high-ranking member of the Afghan High Peace Council said that peace talks with the Taliban will begin in Qatar this week.

Musa Khan Hotak, the director of negotiations for the Afghan High Peace Council, said that talks about negotiations with the Taliban have recently gained momentum. "It is expected that representatives of the Taliban, Pakistan, and members of the High Peace Council will take part in the talks," he told RFA.

But Ismail Qasimyar, an advisor to the Afghan High Peace Council, told RFA on December 16 that no talks were planned in Qatar this week. "All these rumors about the peace talks are wrong. There are no talks," he said.

Michael Semple, a former EU and UN adviser in Afghanistan, told Gandhara that while bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table remains a top priority for Ghani, he has yet to make public his plans for proceeding. Calling Ghani a "very systematic person," he said, "There will be a clearly worked out strategy and one that he would stick to and it will not be impulsive."

Semple, however, said that Ghani has concluded that reassuring Pakistan's security establishment that he will look after their legitimate interests "will win their cooperation and support for a deal with the Taliban."

He said that the recent upsurge in violence across Afghanistan indicates that the Taliban leadership is committed to a military strategy.

Moreover, he says, the Taliban were disappointed by Ghani's rapid signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States one day after his inauguration on September 29.

"They [the Taliban] say ‘how can we make a deal with someone who has quite so clearly jumped into bed with the Americans?'"

Marvin Weinbaum, a South Asia specialist at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., agrees. He says that Ghani has made it clear that he is counting on U.S. assistance both for security and for future development.

This burgeoning relationship with Washington, Weinbaum argues, could complicate his efforts to engage the Taliban in talks.

"Given the feelings of the Taliban here about their minimal conditions of removing the so-called 'occupational forces' -- this is a contradiction here," he told Gandhara. "You can't at the same time have dependence on the United States and also satisfy what will be a minimal condition for the Taliban that is distancing from the U.S."

In addition, sources say that the Taliban are not happy with the reported resumption of night raids by Afghan special forces targeting Taliban leaders. President Karzai had banned such operations last year.

In an interview Ghani rejected these reports. "We have not authorized night raids. Those are misreports. They are total misreports," he told the BBC on December 5.

Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai, however, sees hope on the horizon. He says the Afghan Taliban have matured politically and are in contact with President Ghani's relatives.

"Unlike the past, the Taliban know that without a political resolution it will be easy to keep the war going but difficult to win it," he said.

But Yousafzai also cautions that the Taliban are worried about preventing splits in their organization after the end of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan this year.

"They are worried that some factions might join the Islamic State militant group if they began negotiations with Kabul," he said.

"The major problem for the Taliban leaders is to persuade their ranks for joining peace after motivating them to fight in the name of Islam for 13 years."

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Takal contributed reporting to this story.

Update: The text has been amended to reflect President Ghani's denial of allowing night raids.

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