January 17, 2018 / 4:35 PM / in 7 months

Taliban leader approved Islamabad meeting on Afghan peace talks: sources

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A delegation approved by the Taliban’s supreme leader visited the Pakistani capital this week for exploratory talks on restarting peace negotiations to end Afghanistan’s 16-year war, two senior officials in the movement said.

FILE PHOTO - Taliban new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is seen in an undated photograph, posted on a Taliban twitter feed on May 25, 2016, and identified separately by several Taliban officials, who declined be named. Social Media/File Photo

It was unclear if any progress was made in the unofficial meetings with a representative of a prominent Afghan politician. Many previous attempts have failed to revive direct talks that ended nearly as soon as they started in 2015.

The Islamabad talks on Monday followed another back-channel meeting over the weekend in Turkey between individuals with Taliban connections and representatives of Hizb-i-Islami, the party of a former Taliban-allied commander who last year laid down arms to join Afghan politics.

A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Wednesday he was not aware of the Islamabad talks, while the Taliban did not respond to queries. Both sides on Monday denied participating in the Turkey talks.

However, two senior Taliban officials said on condition of anonymity that supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada had approved Monday’s exploratory meeting in Islamabad on restarting talks to end the war that kills thousands of Afghans each year.

Akhundzada is widely believed to be in hiding in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Turkey meeting had no legitimate Taliban representatives in attendance.

“This is an intelligence game that aims at defaming and damaging the real peace process in Afghanistan,” he said in a statement that referred to the Taliban position that true negotiations can only happen once all foreign troops leave.

SAFE HAVENS

Washington has piled pressure on to Pakistan to persuade the insurgents’ leaders to negotiate as well as crack down on alleged Taliban safe havens inside the country - tactics that Pakistan has said are incompatible.

The three-member Taliban delegation from Qatar included Shababuddin Dilawar and Jan Mohammad Madani from the Taliban’s political office in Qatari capital as well as the brother-in-law of Mullah Jacoob, son of the late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, the sources said.

They met representatives of Afghan politician Pir Syed Hamid Gilani, head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan and the son former High Peace Council chief who died last July, a senior aide to Gilani confirmed on condition of anonymity. Gilani’s office did not respond to queries.

The Taliban’s Haqqani network last week released 14 Afghan army soldiers in the eastern province of Paktia as a goodwill gesture ahead of the talks, according to both the Taliban officials and the aide to Gilani.

In his latest report to the United Nations Security Council last month, the U.N. secretary general said there had been “no meaningful progress towards a peace settlement”.

Under a new strategy announced last year, the United States has stepped up air strikes and boosted assistance to Afghan government forces fighting the Taliban to try to break a stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.

Though the Afghan government still controls less than two-thirds of the country, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Wednesday touted the new strategy as a success and specifically mentioned possible future direct talks with the Taliban.

“The U.S. policy on Afghanistan is working,” Haley told reporters in New York on Wednesday after travelling to Kabul at the weekend with the U.N. Security Council. “We are seeing that we’re closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.”

She said Afghan officials had told the envoys that since the U.S. strategy was put in place “they’re starting to see the Taliban concede, they are starting to see them move towards coming to the table”.

Haley said that the entire peace process was Afghan-led and owned, adding: “We don’t think that we need to facilitate the peace process, we think we need to support the peace process.”

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR, Pakistan, and Mirwais Harooni and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Alison Williams

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