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Asia

Afghan peace talks aimed at bringing Taliban to negotiating table

A high-level meeting is set to take place in Islamabad that will determine the framework for peace talks with the Taliban. But Afghan and Pakistani experts voice different views on the potential outcome of these talks.

The leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are boosting efforts to bring stability to the region. As part of these efforts, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has twice visited Pakistan since he took office in September 2014.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also seen as a proponent of peace when he traveled to Afghanistan last month and, on his return journey, made a surprise stop in Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif.

The powerful chief of Pakistan's army, Raheel Sharif, also recently visited Kabul, where both sides agreed to pursue peace and reconciliation with Taliban factions willing to join the peace process. The US and China have also been supportive of the process.

The peace process

In a bid to consolidate these efforts and devise a strategy for a successful peace process, officials from Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and the US are meeting in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, next week.

The talks are expected to focus on confidence building measures, and to find ways to get the process started and to bring all the interlocutors to the negotiating table.

The inaugural peace talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban that were held last July came to an abrupt end following the revelation that the militant group's founder Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for more than two years.

Then, Mullah Omar's longtime deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour took over the Taliban's top leadership role in August, a move that was rejected by some followers, leading to the emergence of a breakaway Taliban faction.

The power struggle within the militant group, coupled with a lack of mutual trust between Afghan and Pakistani governments, have stalled the peace process.

Masood Khan, director general of Islamabad-based Institute of Strategic Studies, believes that all important stakeholders are serious about achieving a successful conclusion to the peace talks this time round. "This is a very delicate process, but there is agreement at top leadership levels to move this process forward. This strong political will can help achieve the desired goals," Khan told DW.

Pakistan plays a major role in the whole process, as Islamabad is believed to exert influence over the Afghan Taliban. Analyst Khan says Pakistan can bring the militants to the negotiating table. "Pakistan has a modicum of influence over the Taliban but they don't accept direct orders from Islamabad. So the Pakistani leadership would have to persuade them to become part of the peace process."

Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat, also believes Pakistan is crucial for the success of the peace process. "As long as there is no strong will from Pakistan, there will neither be a peace deal nor an end to the Afghan war," Saidi told DW.

A divided Taliban

Despite the efforts to revive the peace talks, the security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. A string of recent terror attacks, including on the Indian consulate in the north Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, have underscored the precarious state of security in the war-ravaged country.

Afghanischer Präsident Ashraf Ghani

Ghani is facing criticism at home for allowing Pakistan to take the lead in organizing the peace talks

The violent attacks make analysts like Faiz Mohammad Zaland, a Kabul University lecturer, skeptical about the upcoming peace talks. "The meeting is being held at a time when the Taliban are involved in infightings and are divided into different groups, and this can be an obstacle. Bringing different Taliban factions together will require time and goodwill from the Pakistani side," Zaland said.

Analyst Khan shares a similar view. "The Taliban has to come forward with a unified position for the talks to be successful," he says.

Regional politics

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ghani is facing fierce criticism for allowing Pakistan to take the lead in organizing the peace talks. Last month, Rahmatullah Nabil, Afghanistan's intelligence chief, resigned from his post as he disagreed with Ghani's policy towards Pakistan.

The lack of agreement within Afghanistan over the talks is likely to pose a major challenge to push the peace process forward. Wahid Mazhda, a former official under the Taliban regime and an expert on the insurgent group, is not optimistic about the peace process.

"This is another attempt by the government in Kabul and its international allies to keep the public busy and give them false hope. The Taliban will not be a part of any peace deal as long as there is US presence in Afghanistan," he said.

Moreover, relations in the neighborhood are plagued by mutual distrust. While Afghanistan harbors concerns about Pakistan providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network, Islamabad voices concerns about Pakistani Taliban fighters operating from the Afghan soil.

At the same time, Pakistan also worries about India's engagement in Afghanistan, suspecting New Delhi of using Afghan territory to destabilize Pakistan. India, on the other hand, accuses Pakistan of sponsoring terror attacks on Indian consulates in Afghanistan.

The lack of trust could hamper the peace process, analyst Khan underlined, calling on the governments of these countries to work together to enhance regional cooperation. "It is in the interest of all groups and forces to work for peace so there is no more opportunity for terrorists to destabilize the region."

IS threat

Another crucial factor driving all the stakeholders to seek a peaceful solution is the growing presence of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terror group.

IS has captured some parts of Nangarhar, an Afghan province bordering Pakistan. Although IS at present only has a light footprint in Afghanistan, a climate of terror and militancy could bolster the group's presence in the country.

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Rahim Ullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based journalist, believes that the relationship between regional countries will play a critical role in crushing IS.

"IS has not captured any area in Pakistan, but its threat is real. Talks are never an agenda of IS, so it will make efforts to sabotage the peace process," said Yusufzai.

Zaland also has a similar view. He says IS is not only a threat to Afghanistan but also to the whole region. "The whole region therefore should take this issue seriously and take coordinated measures."

"What Afghan civil society wants from the upcoming talks is a peace deal that can end the war in Afghanistan. We are also calling on the Pakistani government to change its strategy towards Afghanistan," says former Afghan diplomat Saidi.

Additional reporting by Masood Saifullah

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