ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A surprise announcement by Afghan Taliban leaders that they are sending a delegation here early next week to meet with American negotiators and Pakistani officials was met with a cautious U.S. denial on Thursday and silence from Pakistan.
If such a visit does take place on Monday, it would upstage the formal resumption of ongoing U.S.-Taliban meetings on Feb. 25 in Qatar and represent the first time the Afghan insurgents have openly met with Pakistani leaders since their five-year regime in Kabul was overthrown in 2001.
Whether the announcement was merely a trial balloon in the increasingly complex and expanding Afghan peace process, or the result of private agreements that will eventually be acknowledged, it appeared to bolster Pakistan’s recent claims under Prime Minister Imran Khan that it wants to play a constructive role in ending the 17-year Afghan conflict.
The Afghan Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said in a statement posted online late Wednesday that the group’s plan to visit Pakistan stemmed from a “formal invitation” from the Islamabad government and that its delegates would meet with the Pakistan premier.
“This announcement is surprising but very important,” said Amir Rana, a Pakistani conflict analyst. “It shows the Taliban have an increasing level of confidence as an important stakeholder, and that Islamabad can have a key positive role in the peaceful settlement of the Afghan problem.” Rana warned, though, that “sustained efforts” and American “reciprocity” are also crucial.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here said that the Taliban announcement had been “noted” but that “we have not received a formal invitation to any talks . . . we are not going to negotiate in public.” He also said the U.S. government “supports all steps” that would lead to inclusive peace talks and encourages “all countries” to support the process.
As of Thursday afternoon, there have been no public comments or statements about the possible Taliban visit from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry or other senior government offices.
Analysts said one specific motive for the Taliban’s visit could be its hope to win the release of Anas Haqqani, a militant detained in Afghanistan since 2014, whom the group named this week to its newly announced peace negotiating committee.
The Taliban has already negotiated the release of an even more important figure, Abdul Ghani Baradar, as part of the peace process. Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban movement, was reportedly attempting to begin peace negotiations in 2010 when he was arrested and imprisoned in Pakistan. He was freed in October, reportedly under U.S. pressure. Taliban leaders have named Baradar, a moderate figure who is revered by their forces, to head their political office in Qatar.
The proposed meetings, while boosting Pakistan’s credibility in the peace process, would also likely represent another setback for the Afghan government’s wish to participate. The insurgents have refused to meet with President Ashraf Ghani or other officials, calling them American puppets, while meeting with opposition Afghan leaders in Moscow and holding a series of talks with U.S. officials in Qatar.
The contradictory signals about the possible Pakistan meeting led to conflicting reports Thursday about its genesis. One was that the United States was behind it, hoping that Pakistan would pressure the insurgents to accept talks with the Ghani government. Some media reports here, though, cited Taliban officials saying that the visit marked a “success” for them, because it signified Pakistan’s official acknowledgment that they were the “true representatives” of their country.
Ghani’s testy relationship with Islamabad was on display this week when the Afghan president tweeted his condemnation of Pakistani security forces repressing nonviolent protests. He was apparently referring to an ethnic Pashtun minority group that has demonstrated against government abuses in conflict zones and held an anti-terrorism protest last week in which one of its leaders was killed.
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, denounced Ghani’s criticism as “irresponsible” and “gross interference” in Pakistan’s affairs. However, the two men are scheduled to meet and share a panel discussion on Afghan peace at an international security conference in Munich on Friday and Saturday.
The Taliban, once a reclusive and mysterious militia that focused strictly on fighting Afghan and NATO forces and spreading a harsh and punitive version of Sunni Islam, has burst into the limelight of international diplomacy since last fall, when the Trump administration named veteran U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as its special envoy for Afghan peace.
In the months since, the militant group has been gaining exposure in numerous foreign meetings, with their leaders being named and photographed greeting dignitaries and making speeches. They also continue to espouse a deeply conservative vision of Islam and its role in their country’s future.
While steadfastly refusing to meet or talk with Afghan officials, they met with a broad array of other Afghans at a peace-themed meeting in Moscow last month, which was broadcast live. It included former anti-Soviet militia leaders, opposition politicians and prominent figures of all stripes.
Last week, in a sign of its growing seriousness about peace negotiations, the Taliban leadership named a 14-member team to resume the talks in Qatar. The group included former senior Taliban ministers, governors and ambassadors from the group’s period in power.
In recent meetings and statements, the insurgents have outlined their agenda more clearly, saying they do not want to “monopolize” power but to establish an Islamic government by negotiation among all Afghan groups. They describe a future political system with a new constitution, written “in the light” of Islamic law, and rights for both men and women under the same principles.