KABUL — A year ago, Shafiullah Nooristani, a religious scholar from eastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, was shivering in a rudimentary, snow-covered cell after a month in Taliban captivity, wondering if each day would be his last.
Today, his rural district is still under Taliban control, but as a member of the government-appointed Afghan High Peace Council, his job is to try to persuade local insurgent commanders to give up their armed struggle. During a trip home in early November, he said, two of them accepted.
“I invite them to talk, and I tell them that if they keep on fighting, no roads or schools will be built and Nuristan will stay poor and backward,” Nooristani said last week. “But the key is working through our common tribal base. It was the tribe that negotiated my release last winter, and it is the tribes that can help us negotiate peace now.”
The High Peace Council has had a rocky two-year history, marred by controversy over appointees and the Taliban assassination of its leader, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, 14 months ago. But today, the 70-member group has begun showing unexpected signs of progress and energy under its new head, Rabbani’s son Salahuddin, 41, a Western-educated diplomat who was most recently Afghan ambassador to Turkey.
Beyond its members’ success in wooing homegrown Taliban commanders to join the peace process, the council has made recent headway with a larger and cooler customer, the government of next-door Pakistan. Officials there have paid lip service to the peace process, but they have also maintained long-standing ties with the Taliban and are believed to provide sanctuary for anti-Afghan insurgents.
In November, a council delegation headed by Salahuddin Rabbani held four days of talks in Islamabad and came away with several accomplishments. First, Pakistan announced it was releasing nine Taliban prisoners and pledged to release more. It also agreed to grant Taliban negotiators safe passage to travel for peace talks, seek to exempt them from U.N. sanctions and hold a meeting of regional Muslim scholars.
Rabbani, who has been visiting Washington and New York for talks, characterized the gestures as a turning point in Pakistan’s attitude, saying officials there are alarmed by the toll militant attacks have taken on their country and worried about a spillover of violence after NATO forces leave Afghanistan in 2014.
A visit by Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul to Pakistan on Friday appeared to reinforce the progress made by the High Peace Council delegation. In a joint statement after high-level talks in Islamabad, both sides expressed support for a political settlement to the conflict.
On Saturday, Pakistan announced it would release more Taliban prisoners, reportedly in response to a request from Rassoul. Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not say how many detainees would be freed or when, only that the steps would be taken to promote peace talks and “urge the Taliban to renounce ties to al-Qaeda.”
The Pakistanis “are showing they are ready to cooperate in the peace process. It is a big achievement,” said Habibullah Fawzi, a council member who was once a diplomat for the Taliban regime. “They are feeling pressure from the world community, and they realize that after 2014, if there is no peace in Afghanistan, it will affect the security and economy of Pakistan, too.”
But some council members, like many Afghans, remain deeply suspicious of Pakistan and suggest it is playing a double game, lending superficial support to the peace process while preparing for a possible Taliban return to power after Western troops withdraw.
“We cannot trust Pakistan. They are only acting now and releasing prisoners because of American pressure,” said Maulvi Qalamuddin, a bushy-bearded man in his 60s who once struck fear into Kabul residents as chief enforcer of the Taliban regime’s harsh Islamic rules. “What we need is for the other side to create a peace council. If they do that, I will call it an achievement, but not these tiny steps.”
Qalamuddin, who lives in a modest home off a steep dirt alley in the capital, expressed contempt for the present-day insurgents, saying they have “no will” for peace and no respect for law. “They are revolutionaries and thieves. They are not the real Taliban,” he said. “We were a government, and we followed Islamic law.”
There has been widespread criticism of the council’s pursuit of immunity or amnesty for Taliban who want to negotiate. Human rights activists said it would be a mistake to extend broad amnesty to individuals who have committed war crimes or violently suppressed the populace.
“No blanket amnesty will facilitate a lasting peace,” said Nader Nadery, an activist for human rights and good governance. “People are angry at the crimes and the bombings, and there is a great demand for punishment.”
Although fighting has decreased as cold weather sets in, the Taliban has continued to stage deadly attacks. In the past month, the group has claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed two guards in a high-security zone of Kabul and a truck bomb that decimated a public square in the capital of Wardak province, killing three people and wounding at least 90.
Taliban spokesmen have continued to denounce the Afghan government and the peace process, insisting they will never negotiate as long as Western forces remain in the country. They reacted violently to the recent executions of several Taliban prisoners in Kabul, all of whom were convicted of murder under Afghan law. Taliban spokesmen said the Wardak bombing was in retaliation for the hangings, which were condemned by international human rights groups but welcomed by many Afghans.
But some council officials said they see potential signs of change in the Taliban. Fawzi, who serves as a spokesman for the council, said he believed circumstances in Afghanistan — including the coming withdrawal of foreign troops — are shifting in favor of those on both sides who prefer negotiation to conflict.
“From the beginning, there have always been some Taliban who wanted peace, but the world and the government insisted on war,” he said. “Now the world has agreed that war is not the solution, the Afghan people are tired of it, and it seems like Pakistan is, too. So now, there is a way open for the Taliban. If this process continues sincerely, I think in another year or two, they will sit down and talk.”