Diplomacy

Afghan Taliban leaders head to Islamabad for talks amid renewed sanctions

By Alam Zeb Khan and AFP

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Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi welcomed the Afghan Taliban delegation in Islamabad on Tuesday (August 25). [Pakistani Foreign Office]

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan has invited key members of the Afghan Taliban's negotiating team to Islamabad, where senior officials this week will press them on the importance of starting peace talks.

The meetings come at a crucial time in Afghanistan's conflict, with talks once again stalled amid a controversial prisoner swap and as Pakistan highlights United Nations (UN) sanctions against the militant group.

"The delegation is in Islamabad, and we will have a round of talks with them tomorrow as part of efforts aimed at [building] mutual confidence," Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Monday (August 24).

The Taliban and the Afghan government had signalled they were prepared to start talks immediately after Eid, which ended earlier this month, but the process remains bogged down over a prisoner exchange.

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Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (left) speaks during a press conference in Islamabad on August 24. Pakistan has invited key members of the Taliban's negotiating team to Islamabad, where senior officials this week will press them on the importance of starting peace talks, Qureshi said. [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

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Taliban prisoners pose during the process of potential release from Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul on July 31. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on July 31 ordered the release of 500 Taliban prisoners. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

Kabul has released about 4,680 insurgent prisoners, while the Taliban say they have freed 1,000 members of Afghan security forces, broadly fulfilling an agreement outlined in a deal reached between the United States and the militant group.

However, the swap has stumbled over the final few hundred prisoners, with Kabul reluctant to release what it says are dangerous Taliban fighters tied to deadly attacks.

Qureshi said Islamabad had invited the Taliban to Pakistan to stress the importance of talks, saying negotiations were the "the only way forward" in Afghanistan.

"This is for Afghans to reconcile, and our task is that of facilitator," he added.

"The main objective is to secure peace, and the next phase should be the start of intra-Afghan dialogue."

Last October, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar -- the Taliban's co-founder who spent eight years in Pakistani custody -- led a delegation to Islamabad ahead of a deal that the insurgents signed in February with Washington.

Islamabad has said its influence over the Taliban encouraged the militants to join talks with the United States.

On Sunday (August 23), Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted that Baradar and other negotiators would discuss "recent developments in Afghanistan's peace process, relaxation and facilitation of peoples' movement and trade between the two neighbouring countries."

Sanctions renewed

The Taliban visit comes as the Pakistani government reiterates sanctions against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

Pakistan issued an SRO (Statutory Regulatory Order) showing its compliance with UN Security Council sanctions against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, according to a document published on the Foreign Office's website August 18.

Another SRO issued the same day detailed travel restrictions, arms embargoes and the freezing of funds and other financial resources of individuals and entities associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The SRO "consolidates and documents the previously announced SROs as a procedural measure and does not reflect any change in the Sanctions List or sanction measures", a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on August 21.

"It is the UN Security Council Taliban Sanctions Committee that deals with the sanctions on the Taliban and entities and individuals associated with them," he said.

"Upon any change by the Committee, all states including Pakistan implement these sanctions, which include asset freezes, arms embargoes and travel bans," he added.

Pakistan made the move to meet the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), according to some officials.

The Paris-based inter-governmental organisation in June 2018 placed Pakistan on its so-called grey list for failing to take action against money laundering and terror financing.

It extended a deadline for Islamabad to complete an action plan aimed at meeting the FATF's requirements to September.

The National Assembly on July 29 and the Senate on July 30 passed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Amendment Bill, 2020, and the Anti-Terrorism Act Amendment Bill, 2020.

The new legislation includes measures to enable Pakistan's government to enact asset freezes, travel bans and arms embargoes on entities and individuals designated by the UN. They cover heavy fines and long-term prison sentences for those facilitating militancy.

UNSC resolutions 1267 and 1373 require member states to implement counter-terrorism measures, including the countering of terror financing through their domestic laws. This obligation is implemented in Pakistan through the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997.

"It was necessary for the FATF-related bills to pass in parliament for the removal of Pakistan from the global financial watchdog's grey list," Qureshi said during a news conference after the National Assembly session on July 29.

Pressuring the Taliban

The timing of the SROs raises questions over Pakistan's efforts to facilitate peace in Afghanistan.

Shaheen, the spokesman for the group's political office in Qatar, has expressed reservations over the documents, said Tahir Khan, an Islamabad-based journalist.

Shaheen has said the new situation may spoil the peace process as a travel ban could prevent the Taliban from expediting the process, according to Khan.

"It may spur mistrust as [Pakistan is] facilitating peace talks and at the same time talking about a ban," said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan.

"The Afghan Taliban have had reservations in the past, particularly during the [Pervez] Musharraf regime, and now if a situation of mistrust occurs, it will just add insult to injury," Shah said.

Musharraf led Pakistan from 1999 to 2008 after taking power in a coup.

The Taliban are engaged in peace talks, and if they face further restrictions from Pakistan, they will tilt toward China, Iran, Russia or Turkey, he said.

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Good work, keep it up

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Nice piece of work. It is true that if Pakistan remains hard on Taliban for too long, they will definitely look for other choices as mentioned in conclusion above. Pakistan has to play carefully and tactfully.

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Very interesting topic, well written and balanced one.

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