US urges Pakistan to bring Afghan Taliban to the table

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–US envoy Alice Wells arrives in Pakistan after India-Afghanistan visit, says Afghan Taliban’s refusal to engage in talks is ‘unacceptable’

–Says US yet to see sustained and decisive action on part of Islamabad against ‘terror havens’ in country

 

KABUL: The United States has termed the Taliban’s refusal to engage in dialogue to end Afghanistan’s nearly 17-year conflict as “unacceptable”, and called on Pakistan to exert more pressure on the militants in this regard, as US envoy Alice Wells arrived in Islamabad on Monday for talks with senior civil and military officials.

US envoy Alice Wells made the remarks during a visit to Kabul on Saturday, two weeks after an unprecedented ceasefire triggered spontaneous street celebrations involving Taliban fighters and security forces.

“I think it (the ceasefire reaction) creates this impulse for everyone to renew their efforts to find a negotiated political solution,” Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, told reporters in remarks embargoed until Sunday.

“Increasingly I think it’s becoming simply unacceptable for the Taliban not to negotiate.”

The Taliban have so far ignored President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of peace negotiations. Instead, they have insisted on direct talks with the United States, which Washington has repeatedly refused.

One of the Taliban’s key demands for engaging in talks is the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Wells said that since the Afghan government and the United States were willing to start talking without preconditions, the onus was now on the Taliban to respond.

“Right now it’s the Taliban leaders… who aren’t residing in Afghanistan, who are the obstacle to a negotiated political settlement,” Wells said.

Wells, who is due to hold talks in Pakistan on Monday, said Islamabad needed to do more to squeeze the Taliban and get them to the negotiating table.

“Pakistan has an important role to play… but we have not yet seen that sustained and decisive action on the part of Islamabad,” she said.

“It’s going to be very hard for us to achieve our objectives… if Pakistan isn’t working with us.”

The White House has been ratcheting up pressure on Islamabad to crack down on extremist groups operating in the country after suspending military aid to Pakistan in January because of its inaction on the issue.

Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban and providing safe haven to its leaders, charges Islamabad denies.

Pakistan, in return, has accused Afghanistan of sheltering the Pakistani Taliban.

Afghan security forces resumed offensive missions on Saturday after Ghani declared an end to an 18-day ceasefire that had been extended once.

The government’s unilateral truce overlapped with the Taliban’s three-day ceasefire for Eid, but the militants refused to prolong it.

There is increasing debate within the Taliban leadership over how to respond to the growing pressure to take part in talks, a Western official said.

“I think there are real opportunities now after 17 years of war and mounting international consensus to achieve the kind of talks and schedule that President Ghani laid out,” the official said.

TALKS WITH PAKISTAN:

In her talks with Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, Wells and her team discussed the prospects of the resumption of the moribund Afghan peace process.

Sources familiar with the efforts to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table said both Afghanistan and the United States wanted to reach some kind of deal with the insurgents before the parliamentary elections due later this year. The long-delayed Afghan parliamentary polls are scheduled to take place on October 20. A precarious security situation and continued Taliban attacks may disrupt the democratic exercise.

During several rounds of discussions between Pakistani and Afghan officials, both sides discussed and even worked out a roadmap how to invite the Taliban to join the political process.

The recent killing of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah in a US drone strike in Afghanistan also helped restore some trust between Islamabad and Washington.