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Second Round Of Taliban, Kabul Talks Likely

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, right, greets Afghan President Ashraf Ghani upon his arrival at the military Nur Khan airbase in Rawalpindi on December 9.
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, right, greets Afghan President Ashraf Ghani upon his arrival at the military Nur Khan airbase in Rawalpindi on December 9.

As President Ashraf Ghani visits Islamabad, there are signs that the acrimonious bilateral relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has taken a positive turn.

The Heart Of Asia conference in Islamabad ended with calls for the resumption of Afghan peace negotiations on December 9. The talks stalled soon after Pakistan brokered a first round between the Afghan government and the Taliban in early July.

A violent Taliban campaign marked by spectacular attacks in Afghan cities and a push to claim territory in the countryside compelled Ghani to end his pivot toward Islamabad and demand Pakistan end its support for Afghan insurgents.

The talks were also stalled due to a deadly succession struggle among the Taliban after the acknowledgement in late July that founding Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has been dead for more than two years. The new Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, dismissed the peace talks as a "propaganda campaign by the enemy" and vowed to "continue our jihad until we bring Islamic rule to the country."

With Chinese and U.S. encouragement, Kabul and Islamabad now appear poised to take new steps toward ending the Talban insurgency through negotiations.

Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani told reporters on December 9 that the United States, China, and Pakistan had voiced a willingness to work with Kabul on peace efforts. He said he hoped the dialogue would lead to a "result-oriented peace process" and that he would see some "positive moves in the coming week."

A source briefed on the latest developments said Ghani had agreed to visit Pakistan for the Heart Of Asia meeting after talking with Pakistan's powerful army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who the source says possibly assured him of full cooperation in return for Kabul's agreement to resume talks with the Taliban.

The source said Ghani's meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week produced no substantial agreements but the subsequent video conference with General Sharif gave Ghani reason to visit Islamabad and he is likely to even go along for a second round of talks with the Taliban.

"Paris was symbolic. The video conference was substantial," the source said. "But Kabul would like to get some clear, time-bound assurances from Pakistan [about pushing the Taliban toward ending violence]."

Sources say that in his meeting with Nawaz Sharif the Afghan leader asked for a "mechanics and action plan" regarding the various Pakistani and Afghan Taliban factions operating in the two countries.

Ghani didn't mince his words in asking for verifiable steps toward ending Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents.

"In Afghanistan, there is considerable uncertainty about whether Pakistan truly acknowledges Afghanistan as a sovereign Afghan state with a legitimate government and a legitimate constitution," he said in his speech at the Heart Of Asia conference.

With the Pakistani prime minister sitting beside him, Ghani said, "Your words would go a very long way to assure us in this regard, and that opens up the possibility for a sustainable dialogue between us."

Ghani warned Islamabad against using the Afghan Taliban as a tool to pressure Kabul. "In the past, on various occasions, there has been great temptation to use nonstate actors as instruments of policy. Whatever the justification for those steps and behavior was in the past, in the current threatening environment we must distance ourselves from [using] nonstate actors," he said.

Nawaz Sharif, however, did his best to assure Kabul of his country's resolve in helping end the Taliban insurgency.

"I would like to reiterate my remarks in Kabul on May 12 in which I declared that the enemies of Afghanistan are the enemies of Pakistan," he said. "The government of Pakistan will continue to support the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process that remains the most viable option for ending violence and promoting stability in Afghanistan."

In a sign that the Taliban are ready to talk, the insurgents recently announced that Sher Mohammad Abbass Stanikzai will head their office in Qatar. Since opening in 2013, the office has proved to be the only contact address for the Taliban that is not controlled by Pakistan.

To highlight the challenges posed by violence to the nascent Afghan peace process, some 50 civilians, soldiers, and insurgents were killed at the main military base in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar when scores of Taliban militants stormed the sprawling facility shortly after sundown on December 8.