The Taliban have refused to take part in proposed peace talks despite rumors that they were willing to back a quadrilateral initiative. What does this mean for Afghanistan's future, and can Pakistan use its influence?
There were high hopes that the Afghan Taliban would participate in the peace talks, which several sources had claimed would take place sometime between March 7 and 11 in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. But after the Islamists announced their refusal to join the talks, a revival of the process - stalled since the insurgents announced the death of their long-time leader Mullah Mohammad Omar last July - now looks increasingly difficult.
"We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the leader of the Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting," the group said on Saturday, referring to its new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.
"[Islamic Emirate] once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, blacklists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results," it added.
Analysts had hoped that with the establishment of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), made up of representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, a political solution to end the protracted Afghan conflict could be achieved.
But Afghan officials are still hopeful that peace talks will resume "within weeks."
"The process may be delayed but the Taliban will show up for talks - this we are sure of," a senior Afghan official told the AFP news agency.
'Prepared for the worst'
Aminudin Mozaffari, the secretary and spokesperson for Afghanistan's High Peace Council, has blamed the QCG for not fulfilling its promises. "The four-nation group had promised they would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, therefore it is primarily their responsibility to convince the Islamists. The High Peace Council's job is merely to pave the way for the negotiations," Mozaffari told DW.
The peace negotiator, however, is hopeful that the insurgents will ultimately show some flexibility. "The Taliban, sooner or later, will realize that the negotiations are the only way to end the conflict. We hope they won't waste time and join the talks," he said.
But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has already warned the nation to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. "Let me be clear: Although we have faith in the peace process, and we will continue to make efforts for its success, we are also ready to fight against those who continue to wage war in our country and set preconditions," Ghani told the Afghan parliament on Sunday.
Without a direct reference to the recent Taliban announcement, Ghani said it was his government's responsibility to be "prepared for the worst situation and hope for the best result."
It's likely that Ghani was also hinting at Islamabad's alleged insistence on "preconditions" for the talks. Afghan expert Miagul Wasiq shares the view and believes that the success of the peace process largely depends on Pakistan's role.
Referring to Pakistani foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz's recent remarks that Pakistan is hosting many Afghan Taliban leaders on its territory, Wasiq said that if Pakistan really wants to bring the Taliban into negotiations, it would be impossible for the militants to turn them down.
"It is clear that the Taliban leaders are based in the Pakistani cities of Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta. Pakistan hasn't forced them to shun their activities and stop using its soil," said Wasiq. "If Pakistani officials stop backing them, I am sure the militants will have no option but to join the peace talks."
Not the first time Pakistan is playing a 'double-game'
Islamabad has said it is willing to cooperate, and has denied claims of interference in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has said it wants to facilitate the peace process, but despite a round of successful peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban hosted by Pakistan, there hasn't been a breakthrough. Ghani has slammed Islamabad a number of times for its apparent unwillingness to help in the negotiations.
Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif recently visited Kabul to reassure Afghan authorities of his country's full backing. Experts, however, say that one should not expect much from Sharif's maneuvers. They argue that the deadly militant attacks in Kandahar in December, and the Taliban's continued offensives in Helmand province and other parts of the country, prove that the Pakistani military and its agencies continue to back the insurgents.
"It is not the first time that Pakistan is playing a 'double-game'," Islamabad-based analyst Abdul Agha told DW. "The message to Afghan officials from Islamabad is clear: you have to agree to our demands, or there will be no peace in your country," Agha said, adding that Pakistan wanted the Taliban participation on its own terms.
But Naufil Shahrukh, a researcher at the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), believes the suspension of talks is due to the inflexible approach on the part of Kabul and Washington.
"The Taliban have always been willing to talk, but with a precondition of the complete withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. This, obviously, is not acceptable for the Afghan government and the US," Shahrukh told DW.
Shahrukh also said that Pakistan has practically no influence over the Taliban leadership. "Such preconceived notions should be cleared before any meaningful initiative can take root," he said. "We must admit that the Taliban are still a potent force in Afghanistan. They control, and have public support, in several Afghan provinces."
The IPS expert is of the opinion that without the participation of the Taliban, the credibility and effectiveness of any peace talks would remain questionable.
"The Taliban have nothing to lose. Their ideology and economy thrive on conflict and war. An Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process, in which the insurgents will have their legitimate share, is the only way forward," said Shahrukh.