In a rare diplomatic foray and the strongest sign yet of increasing Taliban political clout in the region, the head of the insurgents’ political office led a delegation to Uzbekistan to meet senior Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials there, Uzbek and Taliban officials said.
Taliban political chief Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai represented the insurgents in the four-day talks that ended on Friday and included meetings with Uzbek Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulaziz Kamilov, as well as the country’s special representative to Afghanistan, Ismatilla Irgashev.
The meetings follow an offer made by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in March to broker peace in Afghanistan.
Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, said in a statement to The Associated Press on Saturday that discussions covered everything from withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan to peace prospects and possible Uzbek-funded development projects that could include railway lines and electricity.
He said that Uzbek officials discussed their security concerns surrounding the development projects.
“The Taliban also exchanged views with the Uzbek officials about the withdrawal of the foreign troops and reconciliation in Afghanistan,” he said in the statement.
The foreign affairs ministry’s Web site offered a terse announcement on the visit, saying that “the sides exchanged views on prospects of the peace process in Afghanistan.”
Still, the meetings are significant, coming as the Taliban are ramping up pressure on Afghan security forces with relentless and deadly attacks. Washington has held preliminary talks with the insurgents in an attempt to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s protracted war.
The Taliban have gained increasing attention from Russia, as well as Uzbekistan, which view the insurgency as a bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan.
The US has accused Moscow of giving weapons to the Taliban.
US Institute of Peace vice president of Asia programs Andrew Wilder said that Washington would welcome a “constructive” Russian role in finding a way toward a peace pact in Afghanistan.
“What wouldn’t be helpful would be if the Uzbek efforts to facilitate lines of communication with the Taliban are not closely coordinated with the Afghan government,” he said.
“High profile talks by foreign governments with the Taliban that exclude the Afghan government risk providing too much legitimacy to the Taliban without getting much in return,” Wilder said.
Yesterday, Ehsanullah Taheri, the spokesman of the Afghan High Peace Council, a wide-encompassing body tasked with finding a path to peace with the government’s armed opponents, said that Uzbek officials had the Afghan government’s approval for the meeting.
“Afghan government welcomes any effort regarding the Afghan peace process, especially those attempts which can lead us to an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process,” Taheri said.
Still, there was no indication from either side that progress toward substantive talks between the Taliban and the government was made.
For Uzbekistan, the IS presence is particularly worrisome, as hundreds of its fighters are former members of the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a declared terrorist group considered the architect of some of the more horrific attacks carried out by the IS in Afghanistan.
Last year, there were reports that the son of the late IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev, who was killed in a US missile strike in Pakistan in 2009, was leading efforts to help expand IS influence in Afghanistan.
Last week, Afghan security forces reportedly rescued scores of Afghan Uzbeks who had declared their allegiance to the IS when they came under attack by Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan, not far from the border with Uzbekistan. The rescued Uzbek warriors subsequently declared that they would join the peace process.
Most of those rescued were Afghan Uzbeks loyal to Afghan Vice President Rashid Dostum, who joined the IS after Dostum fell out with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and fled to Turkey in May last year to live in self-imposed exile there.
Coincidentally, the rescue of Afghan Uzbeks from the battle with the Taliban came just days after Dostum returned to Afghanistan and reconciled with Ghani’s government.
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