Suicide attacks which killed around 150 people in Kabul last month have added urgency to diplomatic efforts to end more than 16 years of war in Afghanistan through talks with the Taliban.
Officials from around 25 countries in the “Kabul Process” are due to meet in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, giving President Ashraf Ghani a chance to present a vision for the way forward and lay out issues he may be willing to negotiate on.
“We are ready for unconditional peace negotiations with them,” Sayed Ehsan Tahiri, spokesman for the High Peace Council, the body overseeing efforts for starting peace talks, said.
January’s attack on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel, followed a week later by another in which an explosives-packed ambulance killed more than 100 people not far from where the meeting will be held, underlined what is at stake for Afghans.
But a long record of unsuccessful attempts to start a peace process demonstrates how complicated and slow-moving it is likely to be. The only time direct talks between the government and the Taliban have been held, in 2015, they broke down almost immediately.
In the past two weeks, the insurgents have issued two statements, including what they called an open letter to the American people, calling for talks with the United States to find a peaceful solution.
There has been a very cautious reaction. By focusing on talks with Washington, diplomats say the Taliban have sought to push forward their claim that they, rather than the Western-backed government, represent the Afghan people.
“It’s the Taliban who have refused to engage in direct negotiations with the Afghan government … the legitimate recognised government for the international community,” Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, said.
The new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, announced last year and based around stepped-up support for the army and greatly increased air strikes against the militants, is intended to pressure the Taliban into talks.
U.S. and Afghan officials say it is hitting them hard but that any talks must be between the government and the Taliban.
“Whatever door the Taliban knock on for peace talks, they will be referred back to talk to the Afghan government and Afghan people,” Tahiri said.
Western diplomats say that even neighbouring countries with better relations with the Taliban than the United States and its NATO allies have been increasingly pressing for talks to end the violence and instability.
Two senior members of the Taliban, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the recent statements reflected a concern not to be seen by friendly powers to be obstructing peace.
One said the movement had no desire to “waste time in useless talks” with Kabul but added: “There is a growing demand and pressure from some of our friends around the world that we should negotiate with the Afghan government.”
Earlier this month, the Russian foreign ministry complained that Washington was ignoring its offer of brokering talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Afghan officials also say that Pakistan’s increasing fear of international isolation over allegations that it supports the Taliban may be persuading it to put pressure on the insurgents to show more willingness to compromise.
“Our understanding is that Pakistan is pushing their leaders to show some willingness for talks because Pakistan is under enormous international pressure,” one senior Afghan official who is close to the process said.
U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison said on Saturday some contacts with the Taliban were already underway “in a very beginning stage”, aimed largely at exploring a framework for possible discussions.