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07 December 2023

Fear drives new front in Afghan peace talks


A plan by Afghanistan to open a second front in peace talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia -- separate from US-led negotiations in Qatar -- is driven by fear of being sidelined, analysts say.

The move could sow confusion in the tentative process that has brought Washington and its Taliban foes to the point of "talking about talks" to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan, they say.

"It looks like both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been concerned that they will be outflanked by what's been happening between the US and the Taliban and it looks like a new front on peace is opening up," said analyst Kate Clark.

"One might think it is good to have everyone talking to each other but I think there is a danger of confusion," Clark, of the Afghanistan Analysts' Network, told AFP.

"When you have all these different players trying to open up talks with the Taliban it might look to the Taliban like a deliberate ploy, an attempt to divide and rule or to get some advantage."

Just days after it became clear that Taliban negotiators had already begun holding preliminary talks with US officials in Qatar, news of the Afghan plan for separate talks in Saudi Arabia was leaked on Sunday.

Confirming plans for the talks, a senior Afghan government official told AFP: "We will always pursue all roads towards peace in Afghanistan, including contacts with the Taliban that are not limited to the Qatar office."

A member of the Taliban's leadership council, called the Quetta Shura after the Pakistani city, suggested the Pakistan government supported the move.

"The idea that the Taliban should have a point of contact in Saudi is pushed by the Pakistan and Afghan governments," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"This is because they think they have been sidelined. They want some control over peace talks."

But it remains far from clear whether the Taliban, which have resisted talks with the Afghan government, or the Saudis, which have conditioned involvement on the Taliban renouncing Al-Qaeda, would come on board.

Asked for reaction to the move, a spokesman for the US embassy in Kabul, Gavin Sundwall, said only: "We support an Afghan peace process that involves Afghans talking to Afghans." He refused further comment.

A US-led invasion in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington toppled the Taliban's hardline Islamist government for sheltering Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Washington now heads a coalition of some 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan and its moves towards peace talks in Qatar come ahead of a plan to withdraw all combat soldiers by the end of 2014.

"It is not surprising that the Afghan government feels a need to assert its sovereignty by reaching out to others in the region, in the world at large, who might contribute to this process of discussions with the Taliban," said analyst Candace Rondeaux.

"I think it does not bode well that the Afghan government feels so isolated that it cannot even get on the page with the Qatar office discussions and doesn't feel it can impact the process between the US and the Taliban."

Rondeaux, of the International Crisis Group, said any Pakistani involvement would be clearer when it was known whether it was mainly civilian or military driven.

"Without having a sense of actually who is going to show up to these talks it's too early to say what we can divine from Pakistan's participation at this stage."

Afghanistan has announced that Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar will visit Kabul on Wednesday, marking what government spokesman Janan Mosazai called a "new phase" in cooperation between the two countries.

Khar would meet President Hamid Karzai to "discuss the fight against terrorism and Pakistan's essential support to the peace process in Afghanistan", he said.

The Kabul government has accused Pakistan in the past of supporting the Taliban and sabotaging all efforts to launch peace negotiations.

In Islamabad, an official in the foreign ministry told AFP on condition of anonymity that "talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia is one of various proposals being viewed by the Pakistani authorities".

"Pakistan wants to play its role in the stability of Afghanistan and is open to all efforts. But we are waiting for the conclusion of Qatar talks and other options, including this, relate to the results of the Qatar dialogue."