8 July 2015, NYT: Afghan Officials and Taliban Meet in Possible Step Toward Peace Talks
JULY 8, 2015
Taliban-Afghan Meeting Ends With Optimism and Plans to Hold More Talks
By MUJIB MASHAL
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban wrapped up their first official meeting in Pakistan with an agreement to meet again in several weeks and continue discussions about the possible opening of peace talks, Afghan and Pakistani officials said Wednesday.
The initial talks,  hosted by Pakistani officials into early Wednesday morning in the resort town of Murree, outside Islamabad, offered a rare political victory for President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. Mr. Ghani has maintained that a viable peace process with the Taliban has to include the help of Pakistan, where the Taliban's senior leadership lives, but he has faced heavy domestic criticism for his efforts in recent months to more closely cooperate with the Pakistani military.
But even as Mr. Ghani's fractious and often dysfunctional government has struggled,  there was a general air of optimism in Kabul as the delegation returned. Some of Mr. Ghani's critics, including former President Hamid Karzai, welcomed the progress.
Government officials said that the delegation would report details of the meeting on Thursday. In a statement, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the initial meeting with Taliban officials, calling it a "first step toward reaching peace."
Qazi Khalilullah, the spokesman for Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which helped facilitate the meeting, said the talks were held in a "very positive and cordial atmosphere." He said the two sides agreed to meet again after the end of Ramadan this month.
A senior Pakistani security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the meeting, said that some of the most substantive discussion involved mutual confidence-building measures that could lead to a negotiated reduction of violence in Afghanistan.
The official did not provide details on what those trust-building measures would be, but described the tone of the meeting as upbeat. "The ambience was so good and the atmosphere was so positive that by the time they concluded, they were hugging each other," the official said.
Pakistani and Western officials said heavy pressure by the Pakistani military was instrumental in getting Taliban representatives to the meeting. It was a quiet acknowledgment that the Pakistani military, which helped nurture the Afghan Taliban insurgency as a proxy, still retains influence -- or at the least an intimidation factor -- with Taliban leaders who have taken shelter in Pakistan.
But the identities of the delegates who attended on behalf of the Taliban -- and the groups in the increasingly fractious movement they represented -- were unconfirmed on Wednesday and will be a central topic of discussion in the coming days.
While a statement from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said the Taliban representatives were "duly mandated" by the movement's leadership, members of the Taliban political office in Qatar, which had been at the forefront of the Taliban's previous outreach, said otherwise.
A member of the office, in an email exchange with a New York Times reporter, said the Pakistan-organized meeting was "a step in the wrong direction." In a separate statement, the Taliban said only the political office was authorized for such talks.
But former members of the Taliban challenged that view on Wednesday, saying the meeting was still a major development.
"Who are they, representing to claim that the delegates in Islamabad are not authorized, or whether they are officially assigned to the meeting or not?" said Mawlawi Qalamuddin, a former Taliban member who is now part of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, the body tasked with exploring talks with the insurgency.
"Has Mullah Muhammad Omar released a decree identifying which one of them is an official delegate?" he added, hinting at the continuing mystery surrounding the Taliban's founder, Mullah Omar, whom even some senior members of the Taliban say they have not seen in years.
While the apparent divide among the Taliban came to light, the relative inclusiveness of the Afghan government delegation was hailed by many as a rare positive step for a power-sharing government that has acted as anything but united.
Led by Hekmat Khalil Karzai, the deputy foreign minister who is a close confidant of Mr. Ghani, the delegation included representatives from all the major players in the government, including at least two officials representing the chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and his deputies.
Over the 10 months of their government, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah have agreed on few things, but the peace process is one issue that has kept them relatively in sync.
The delegation, however, appeared to lack any female representation, despite Mr. Ghani's repeated promises that women would be included in talks with the Taliban.
Reporting was contributed by Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan; Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan; and Fazal Muzhary and Ahmad Shakib from Kabul.