The Taliban has threatened to leave the peace process if the US continues to avoid its demands to withdraw American troops from the country.
On January 14, Taliban fighters detonated a truck filled with explosives in eastern Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, killing at least five people and injuring dozens more.
The insurgent group said that the attack was in response to the recent appointment of the new Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh, a former head of the National Directorate of Security, known for hunting down Taliban leaders.
Saleh’s appointment last month by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani came at a time when the United States is in talks with the Taliban on a possible ceasefire in the 17-year civil war.
In recent months, Taliban representatives and US officials have met at least three times, but the talks seem to have hit a deadlock as Washington insists that Kabul be made part of the negotiations.
Up until now the insurgent group has refused to meet officials from the Afghan government, saying they first want a timetable for a withdrawal of 14,000 American soldiers stationed in the country. The Taliban also doesn’t recognise that Kabul has a legitimate government.
“In an ideal world, yes, it’s unfair that the Afghan government is not included in the talks. But there’s no reason for it to throw a spanner now when there’s actually a chance for peace,” Amina Khan, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, told TRT World.
“It was the Afghan government which encouraged the peace process when Ashraf Ghani last February made an unprecedented offer of agreeing to amend the constitution, letting the Taliban contest elections and removing their names from blacklists.”
This week, the Taliban threatened to withdraw from the peace process if the US didn’t discuss the terms for ending the occupation of Afghanistan.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation, is due in Islamabad as part of his trip to countries in the region to mobilise support for the initiative.
The US wants regional players to pressure the Taliban to be more flexible.
Taliban leaders have long found sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan, which the US and Afghanistan accuse of helping the insurgents.
Officially, Islamabad denies facilitating the fighters and says it’s difficult to stop people from crossing the porous border despite an 800 kilometre-long fence.
But it continues to exert influence on the insurgent group.
On January 14, Pakistani authorities detained a senior Taliban leader, Hafez Mohibullah, for a few hours in the city of Peshawar. The group said it was an attempt to put it under pressure.
“I think that was not a wise thing to do,” said Khan.
The Taliban, she says, has matured since it was pushed out of power in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by US forces, and has learned the art of negotiating.
For instance when it comes to India, Pakistan’s archrival in the region, the insurgent group has assured New Delhi that it won’t let Afghanistan be used against its interests.
“Basically they are telling the Indians between the lines that we won’t let our territory be used by Pakistanis against you,” explained Khan.
Even Islamabad realises now that India has an important role to play in Afghanistan, where it has spent heavily on developmental assistance.
The Taliban now occupies or is in the process of vying for half the territory in Afghanistan. It is in control of 250 of the 400 districts.
The growing unpopularity of Ghani’s government has worked in favour of the Taliban, which enjoys the support of more than half the population in some provinces, according to a recent Asia Foundation survey.
The insurgents, comprised mostly of ragtag fighters armed with rusty Kalashnikovs and rundown joggers, have emerged as an alternative and gained legitimacy among the Afghan people due to the government's inefficiency in delivering basic services.
Pakistanis have been part of almost all the meetings involving Taliban. Over the years, Taliban leaders have also travelled abroad on Pakistani passports.
“Islamabad’s role has transformed with the passage of time and it is making genuine effort to engage with the Afghans and bring peace in the country,” Rana Athar Javed, Director General of the Islamabad-based think tank Pakistan House, told TRT World.
On January 17, Afghan President Ghani called Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and “expressed his gratitude for Pakistan’s sincere facilitation of these efforts”.
“It doesn’t want to see a dogmatic government especially as it has concerns about the presence of BLA and ISIS [Daesh] militants in Afghanistan,” said Javed.
BLA, or the Balochistan Liberation Army, is an insurgent group carrying out attacks in Pakistan’s southern province.
Khan added that over the years Pakistan has changed its stance from wanting to see a Pashtun government to “a friendly government”.
The Taliban movement is made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Pashtuns, an ethnic community that straddles both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Pakistan is also being pushed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help find a way to end the war in which thousands of civilians have been killed.
“That’s because of the Riyadh’s close relations with Washington and MBS’s [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] efforts to appease the Americans,” said Khan.
But Pakistan also realises that the war cannot go on forever. It is detrimental to the economy, especially as Chinese companies are trying to enter the Afghan market, she added.