By Aamir Latif
The Taliban are reluctant to meet U.S. officials in Pakistan to avoid being pressurized into accepting the Afghan government in the peace process aimed at ending the 17-year war, backdrop interviews with intelligence and government officials suggest.
Pakistan is trying to arrange a meeting between Taliban representatives and U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who is currently in Islamabad, in an attempt to break a stalemate that has hit the fragile peace process following Washington’s desire to include Kabul in the process.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has already rejected Washington's demand accusing it of drifting from the agenda and "unilaterally adding new subjects".
Zalmay, who is visiting Islamabad for the fifth time in the last few months, met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Friday to discuss the progress made in the sluggish
“We are in constant touch with the Taliban representatives but they are reluctant to meet the U.S. delegation in Islamabad. Instead, they are insisting for Doha to be the venue of the meeting, where they have a political office and feel more comfortable,” a senior military official told Anadolu Agency on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the media on record.
Mullah Abbas, a senior Taliban leader and a former health minister in the Taliban government, is currently in Pakistan and engaged in talks with the Pakistani officials, according to the official.
Islamabad is believed to have a degree of influence over the Taliban as their families have long been residing in Pakistan. They also depend on Pakistan for medical treatment.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based expert on Afghan affairs seconded the military official’s views saying: “ Taliban want to avoid Islamabad’s pressure by holding meetings in Doha or somewhere else [except for Pakistan].
“ A neutral venue suits Taliban where they can negotiate independently.”
Pakistani broadcaster Geo News on Friday reported that the next round of talks between the Taliban and U.S. officials will be held in Islamabad, with representation from Saudi Arabia, UAE
Hamid Mir, an Islamabad-based journalist claimed that the Taliban have agreed to hold talks with the U.S. delegation in Islamabad.
“According to my information, the meeting is expected to be held in the next 24 hours," said Mir, who was the last journalist to interview slain Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden after 9/11.
“It was not the Taliban but Doha that had objected to holding meetings in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it was decided that the next meeting will be held at some other place, like Islamabad,” he added.
In December, Pakistan confirmed it had arranged rare direct talks between Washington and the Taliban paving the way for a negotiated settlement of the conflict that has entered its 18th year.
Pakistan had facilitated the landmark first round of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Islamabad in July 2015, but the process broke down after Taliban announced the death of their long-term leader Mullah Omer triggering a bitter power struggle within the militia.
Since then, several attempts to resume the stalled peace process have been made by a four-nation group comprised of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the U.S.
Until now, however, these attempts have failed to bear fruit except for a few rounds of direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.
*Islamuddin Sajid contributed to this report from Islamabad.