Secret Afghan talks fail in Doha, Taliban team arrives in Pakistan

Failure to move forward on a ceasefire, Afghan government sources said, means there is little prospect of progress towards negotiations with the Taliban.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Published:October 23, 2016 4:43 am
Taliban, Aghanistan, Afghanistan Taliban, Afghanistan ceasefire, Taliban Afghanistan, Pakistan, Pakistan Taliban, Pakistan news, Afghanistan news, World news The Taliban office in Doha, Qatar. (AP Photo)

A top Taliban leader who met Afghan government officials for secret talks early this month in Doha rejected a proposal to implement a ceasefire ahead of a political dialogue, a senior Western diplomat familiar with the discussions has told The Sunday Express, saying there was no support in the organisation to terminate what it sees as a successful military campaign against the government.

Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, one of former Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar’s brothers and the head of its Preaching and Guidance Commission, met with two key Afghan officials and a United States diplomat in Doha, in a last-ditch effort to move forward peace talks sanctioned by outgoing President Barack Obama’s administration, the diplomat said.

Failure to move forward on a ceasefire, Afghan government sources said, means there is little prospect of progress towards negotiations with the Taliban, at least until a new United States government is in office — in effect, the bitter fighting that has seen the loss of hundreds of lives is likely to spill into 2017.

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In a statement, the Taliban denied it has engaged in any talks with the government, reiterating its long-standing official position that no negotiations are possible while foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.

The failure of the last-ditch effort to talk peace comes even as New Delhi is firming up plans to supply T72 main battle tanks to embattled Afghan forces, along with 105 mm artillery, trucks and mobility equipment mothballed and stored by the Indian Army. Indian government sources said officials have been asked to fast-track deliveries, and conclude discussions on further military aid.

Afghan government sources confirmed that the Doha meetings were initiated by Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. The first meeting between Mullah Manan and Stanekzai was was held in September, followed by the second one early this month, the second also involving Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar.

“It would be wrong to see these as a one-off event, as the media has cast them,” a senior Afghan government official said. “Stanekzai had regular contact with a wide spectrum of Taliban figures when he served with President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to negotiate peace until 2014, and these have continued uninterrupted.”
The NDS chief served on the High Peace Council set up by President Karzai to seek peace with the Taliban, suffering serious injuries in a 2011 bomb attack which claimed the life of its chairperson, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Mullah Akhund, Afghan sources said, did not claim to be engaged in a dialogue on behalf of the Taliban leadership as a whole. Following the revelation of his brother’s death in 2015, both Akhund and Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Muhammad Yakub, had rejected the leadership of its new head, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.

However, both later vowed fealty, with Yakub being given a seat on both the Taliban’s executive council, the so-called Quetta Shura, and a position in its military commission.

Intelligence officials have, however, said the strains opened up again after Mullah Mansoor’s elimination in a drone strike, when Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence engineered the appointment of its proxy Mullah Hibatullah as the Taliban’s chief, and Sirajuddin Haqqani as its overall military leader — thus shattering the hopes of Mullah Omar’s heirs.

Key to the new Doha outreach, the Western diplomatic source said, was the realisation that no major forward movement on Afghanistan would be possible from now until early 2017 when the new US President’s policy team would be well established in office. The United States now has over 8,500 combat troops in Afghanistan, many involved in active combat.

“In Doha, we sought to send a message to the Taliban that their military actions have been counterproductive,” the diplomat said. “Their actions have ensured foreign troops they wanted out of the country remain, and the international community is more determined than before to ensure the Afghan government survives.”
Afghan government sources said much the same message had been conveyed to the Taliban by China in July, when a delegation led by Doha office chief Abbas Stanekzai visited Beijing.

Leaders from the Taliban’s Doha office, including former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Maulvi Shahbuddin Dilawar, former foreign minister Mullah Jan Muhammad Madani, and former deputy education minister Mullah Abdul Salam, are now reported to have travelled to Islamabad for further consultations with Pakistan’s military leadership.

“The ISI is under intense pressure both from the West and China to nudge the Taliban towards a ceasefire,” a senior Indian diplomat said. “It needs to be seen to be acceding to those demands, but also wishes to do so without giving up any of the military gains made in the course of the summer’s fighting against the Afghan government.”