ISLAMABAD: After hectic behind-the-scene efforts, involving key players including Pakistan, the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban are expected to meet in China this month, in a development that rekindles the hopes for a peaceful end to the lingering Afghan war.
The move comes against the backdrop of prisoner-exchange deal between Afghan government and the Taliban. Pakistan is believed to have played a central role in securing the prisoners swap.
It happened the same day when a high-powered Pakistani delegation, comprising Inter-Services intelligence (ISI) chief Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed and Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood, was in Kabul.
An official familiar with the development told The Express Tribune that Pakistan acted as 'go-between' the Afghan government and the Taliban to secure the release of two American professors in exchange for Taliban prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is second-in-command in the Afghan Taliban hierarchy.
President Ashraf Ghani confirmed the prisoner-swap deal in a televised addressed on Tuesday, saying he took the initiative to pave the way for direct talks with the Taliban representatives.
The prisoners were released on November 12 from Bagram prison, Ghani said in a live news conference, though he didn't say when they would be set free, according to the Reuters.
However, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and BBC Pashto reported on authority of sources that the Taliban prisoners, Anas Haqqani, brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, Hafiz Rashid Omari and Haji Milli Khan, had been released. All three were captured in 2014.
The freed militants "will be sent to Qatar under US supervision", an unnamed Afghan official told RFE/RL. Ahead of the release, the Afghan president said the prisoners would only be freed if the Taliban in turn released US citizen Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks who were abducted in August 2016 from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.
The prisoner-exchange deal is seen as significant in view of the ongoing efforts to revive the stalled peace process. The Taliban, although met different Afghan groups in Russia and in Doha earlier, have until now refused to directly engage with the Kabul administration, calling them as US puppets.
However, Pakistan as well as other players, including China, has been for so long pushing the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government. China was originally scheduled to hold intra-Afghan dialogue in the last week of October but the meeting was postponed to give more time to all sides for a meaningful engagement.
While the Afghan government asked the Taliban to declare a month-long ceasefire, the insurgent group sought the release of Anas Haqqani, who was in Afghan government's custody since 2014.
US Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visited both Kabul and Islamabad late last month to find a way out of the impasse in the peace process. Pakistan, which hosted the Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar last month, played an 'active role' to break the stalemate on the prisoners exchange, said the official.
The official added that the exchange of prisoners now cleared the hurdle in holding intra-Afghan dialogue in China later this month. It is however not clear if the Taliban would agree to a ceasefire as demanded by both the US and Afghan government.
Meanwhile, in order to prepare ground for the upcoming talks in Beijing, China's Special Envoy on Afghan Affairs, Ambassador Deng Xijun, visited Islamabad on Tuesday and met the foreign secretary.
An official hand out said, the foreign secretary shared Pakistan's perspective on Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations, Afghanistan's peace and reconciliation process, and Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue.
The foreign secretary reaffirmed the importance Pakistan attached to a peaceful, stable, united, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan. Reiterating Pakistan's strong commitment to a political settlement in Afghanistan, he underscored Pakistan's hopes for early resumption of the stalled peace process.
The foreign secretary appreciated China's positive contributions to Afghanistan's national development and assured the envoy of Pakistan's continued support in this context.
Ambassador Xijun said that the close cooperation between China and Pakistan was essential to ensure that the Afghan peace and reconciliation process continued to move forward.
He noted that Pakistan had an important and unique role in the promotion of Afghan peace process and China looked forward to working closely with Pakistan in this regard. The two sides agreed to continue their mutual engagement bilaterally as well as in the context of four-party talks.