ISLAMABAD: The Afghan Taliban held informal, secret peace talks with the Afghan government earlier this month in Qatar, though a Taliban spokesman denied they took place.
Mullah Abdul Manan, brother of deceased Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar had an informal meeting with Afghan spymaster Masoom Stanekzai and US officials in Qatar, where the group has set up a political office, an Afghan official told The Express Tribune by phone from Kabul.
He, however, refused to say who arranged the meeting and what was discussed. “We cannot call the Qatar meeting negotiations,” he said, requesting not to be identified as he is not authorised to talk to the media on record. “Possibly, there would be more expanded interactions.”
This is not the first time Stanekzai has met Taliban leaders. Last year, he had an interaction with three senior Taliban members in the Chinese city of Urumqi.
A former Taliban minister did not rule out the Qatar meeting but argued that it was against the Taliban policy to engage with the administration of President Ashraf Ghani.
“I strongly believe Mullah Abdul Manan might have been misled by someone,” he said requesting anonymity. Mullah Manan has ‘no authority’ to hold talks as only the Qatar office is authorised to enter into negotiations.
A third Taliban leader, however, said the group’s leaders have held talks with the Americans. “Some Taliban favour talks with the Americans because the key to resolving the Afghan conundrum rests with the United States,” he told The Express Tribune.
“There have been some interactions with the Afghan government but no meeting has taken place with Stanekzai.”
The Taliban have long been seeking direct talks with the United States to discuss a timeframe for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. “Since the Americans had toppled our government and the invading forces are still stationed in Afghanistan; therefore we would like to have talks with them first,” a fourth Taliban leader insisted.
According to Reuters news agency, the Afghan Taliban officials, based in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, said the talks had yielded little. They added that US officials were part of the process, although they did not specify whether they were directly involved in the talks.
Afghan and US officials demanded that the Taliban declared a ceasefire, laid down arms and started formal peace talks, said the UAE-based official. In response, he said, Taliban officials demanded that the group be officially recognised as a political movement, its leaders’ names be removed from a UN blacklist and all prisoners be released.
“Like our previous meetings, it was a waste of time and resources, as we could not achieve anything from the meeting,” said the UAE-based official.
Mark Toner, deputy spokesman at the State Department, said the United States supported a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict, but declined to comment on the reported talks.
A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would not confirm or deny any recent talks in Qatar when asked by Reuters, but added: “We will use all possible ways in order to reach a lasting peace in the country”.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed reports of the meeting, saying they were propaganda aimed at creating divisions within the insurgency. “Representatives of the Islamic Emirate have neither met Masoom Stanekzai nor any other official of the Kabul administration,” Mujahid said in a statement. “There is no change in the Taliban stance on negotiations. Our policy is very clear. The Islamic Emirate urges all media outlets to desist from spreading such baseless news,” he added.
“Nothing such thing has happened,” a Taliban official told The Express Tribune by phone from Qatar late Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper, while citing anonymous sources, reported that the Taliban had held two rounds of discussions, some of which included US officials. It added that no Pakistani official took part in the talks.
Previous Pakistan-brokered peace talks have yielded little progress, and ground to a halt when news of the death of Mullah Omar was confirmed in 2015. Efforts to revive the talks collapsed when the United States killed former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a drone strike in Balochistan in May.
Under new Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, fighting has raged across Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking the northern city of Kunduz and threatening Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkar Gah in the south.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2016.
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