Afghan peace delegation meets ex-Taliban big

Nov 21, 2013, 10:24 AM EST
 Former Afghan vice president Ahmad Zia Massoud (L), General Abdul Rashid Dostum (2-L), High Peace Council chairman Salahuddin Rabbani (2-L) and governor of the province of Balkh, Atta Mohammad Noor (R) leave after a political gathering in Kabul on August 29, 2013.

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Members of an Afghan delegation tasked with holding peace talks with the Taliban met with the group's former deputy leader in Pakistan in an attempt to jumpstart sputtering negotiations, Pakistani and Afghan officials said Thursday.

Pakistan released the former Taliban No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in September after years of detention, a move that stirred hope among many Afghan and Pakistani officials that he could help forge a peace deal between the insurgents and the Afghan government.

The U.S. also has pushed for a peace deal with the Taliban, hoping it will prevent Afghanistan from spiraling into further instability when most American troops withdraw by the end of 2014. Washington is currently negotiating with Kabul to work out a pact to let some forces remain beyond that deadline.

But some observers have expressed doubt that Baradar will make a difference in pushing forward the peace process, saying he has been in captivity too long and may no longer be trusted by the Taliban. The insurgent group also has poured cold water on hopes that the former deputy leader will spark a breakthrough in negotiations.

The Pakistani and Afghan officials who confirmed that representatives of the Afghan High Peace Council met with Baradar refused to provide details about the meeting. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists about the matter.

The Afghan delegation was led by the head of the peace council, Salahuddin Rabbani, according to a statement from the office of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The statement, which said Sharif met with the delegation, did not mention the meeting with Baradar.

Baradar was arrested in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi in 2010 in a joint operation with the CIA after he held secret peace talks with the Afghan government. The arrest outraged Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who immediately called for his release. Pakistan resisted for years, exacerbating already tense relations with neighboring Afghanistan.

After Baradar's release, the Afghan government pushed for a meeting between him and the peace council, hoping it would help negotiations.

But a senior Taliban official said in recent days that a meeting between Baradar and the council wouldn't do any good, claiming the former deputy leader had no interest in holding discussions with Afghan officials. Also, Taliban prisoners do not represent the group, even after they are freed, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.

The Taliban have so far refused to talk directly with Karzai, his government or its representatives. Attempts to open talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban in June ended in failure after Karzai accused the militants of setting up a government in exile and demanded they remove their flag and a sign identifying the movement as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban refused and closed their office in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Pakistan has a complicated relationship with the Taliban. Pakistan helped the group seize control of Afghanistan in 1996, and Kabul has repeatedly accused Islamabad of providing the insurgents sanctuary on its territory following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Many analysts also believe Pakistan has maintained its ties with the Taliban as a way to counter the influence of archenemy India in Afghanistan. But there is also significant distrust of Pakistan among the Taliban, a feeling that has been reinforced by Islamabad's detention of insurgents — possibly as bargaining chips.

Islamabad is also fighting its own related insurgent movement, the Pakistani Taliban.