[The Afghan government has given Pakistan a list of specific insurgents with whom it hopes to negotiate, the Afghan official said. Hoping to achieve some immediate reduction in violence, Mr. Ghani’s government wants to engage commanders in the field, as well as political leaders abroad who have direct influence over the level of fighting.]
By Rod Nordland and Mujib Mashal
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban said on Saturday that they would not participate in international peace talks, citing what they claimed were increased American airstrikes and Afghan government military operations.
The talks, convened by the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, were expected to start this month in Pakistan. Taliban envoys were expected to join the discussions after being pressured by the Pakistani government, which provides the insurgents with sanctuaries inside its territory. Afghan and Pakistani government officials said the talks would continue despite the Taliban statement, but pushed the start date back to sometime later this month.
In a statement posted on the insurgents’ website, the Taliban denied that a representative would attend the talks. “We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the esteemed leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting,” read the statement, posted in English.
Previous talks have taken place without Taliban representatives present, but Afghan and Pakistani officials had expressed confidence that direct talks between the Afghan government and the militants would resume in March, and they maintained that position on Saturday.
“This is just public bargaining on the part of the Taliban,” said an official close to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject is a delicate one. “They did it last time, too. They put out a statement of denial, and then they showed up to talks.”
The official said the Pakistan military leader, Gen. Raheel Sharif, who visited Kabul last week, had assured Afghan leaders that talks would go ahead.
Direct talks began last summer in Pakistan, but quickly fell apart after Afghan officials concerned about the authority of the insurgent delegation leaked word that the Taliban’s longtime leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had been dead for two years.
The leader who took over, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, had been known to favor participation in the negotiations. Since Mullah Mansour took power, the group has been riven by dissension over the leadership change, and fighting off challenges in some areas from insurgents allied with the Islamic State group.
The Afghan government has given Pakistan a list of specific insurgents with whom it hopes to negotiate, the Afghan official said. Hoping to achieve some immediate reduction in violence, Mr. Ghani’s government wants to engage commanders in the field, as well as political leaders abroad who have direct influence over the level of fighting.
The request does not seem to have gone over well with Taliban leaders, who have insisted that their political office in Qatar is the only address for peace talks. In their statement, the Taliban said they opposed talks because they had not been “kept informed about the negotiations from the onset” and because the United States had deployed additional troops, and carried out airstrikes and night raids. It also said the government in Kabul had increased military operations in the winter.
While there are no confirmed reports that the United States has increased troop levels in Afghanistan — there are now about 10,000 American service members in the country — the United States military is carrying out airstrikes in support of Afghan government operations and secret American Special Operations missions. Both the Taliban and the government have maintained steady military operations throughout the winter, normally a time of decreased hostilities. The militants said they had no intention of joining talks as long as the country was under what they described as foreign occupation.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, Mohammad Nafees Zakaria, said the four countries sponsoring the talks had recommended that there should be no preconditions. “All four countries are making efforts to bring the Taliban groups to the negotiation table,” he said.
Pakistan has leverage over the Taliban because the group enjoys sanctuary in Pakistani territory, and many of its fighters receive medical treatment there. Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of failing to push the insurgents to participate in peace talks, but in recent months Pakistani officials there have pledged support for the effort. In addition, China has encouraged the Taliban and Pakistan to join the peace process.
Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul.