ISLAMABAD – Pakistan said Tuesday it was “hopeful” about prospects of U.S.-backed peace talks between Afghanistan’s warring parties to end the country’s long conflict.
The optimism stemmed from a meeting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi held Tuesday with a visiting Afghan Taliban delegation led by the insurgent group’s political affairs chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
A post-meeting Pakistani statement said the discussions focused on the stalled Afghan peace process and the way forward.
The proposed talks are a product of a Feb. 29 landmark peace deal the United States signed with the Taliban to help end decades of Afghan violence and allow all U.S. troops to withdraw from the country by mid-2021.
“The foreign minister emphasized the implementation of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement in its entirety, paving the way for the earliest possible commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations,” the statement said.
Qureshi noted that Taliban leaders had reiterated determination to stick to the agreement to find a political resolution to the Afghan war.
“I expect our talks today (with Taliban delegates) will, God willing, help in finding a way forward,” the foreign minister said without further elaboration.
The opening of the intra-Afghan dialogue, however, is linked to the completion of a prisoner swap between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which was kept out of the agreement.
The deal called for the Taliban to free 1,000 Afghan security forces they held captive. In exchange, the Afghan government was supposed to release up to 5,000 insurgent prisoners.
While the Taliban has already released in phases all the detainees since the swap began in April, Kabul has freed all but about 320 Taliban prisoners.
Afghan officials have cited security concerns and pressure from foreign governments for not setting the remaining prisoners free. The detainees, they maintain, are involved in deadly attacks against Afghans and citizens from other countries.
The government has also cited stepped-up insurgent attacks across Afghanistan as another reason for its reluctance to release the prisoners.
The Taliban said it will discuss a cease-fire when intra-Afghan talks begin, and denies allegations against insurgent prisoners, ruling out peace talks until all prisoners are freed.
Washington has also been pressing all Afghan sides to remove remaining hurdles to the peace talks and begin dialogue as soon as possible.
Tuesday’s talks in Islamabad were also attended by the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed.
The spy agency, critics say, is known for its close ties with Afghan armed groups, including the Taliban, since the time of the former Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The agency is believed to have used its influence with the Taliban to bring them to the table for talks and ultimately sign the February deal with the U.S.