Pakistan has invited key Taliban negotiators to its capital to push for peace talks to end the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan, Islamabad’s foreign minister said Monday.
The Taliban and the Afghan government had signaled they were prepared to start talks immediately after the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, which ended earlier this month, but the process remains bogged down over a controversial prisoner swap.
Both sides have fought for nearly two decades in a conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead.
“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,” Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a press conference.
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 dialog.”
Under the prisoner exchange, Kabul has released about 4,680 insurgent detainees while the Taliban says it has freed 1,000 members of Afghan security forces, broadly fulfilling an agreement outlined in a deal reached between the US and the Taliban.
But 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.
Meanwhile Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the Afghan government’s peace process, called for the prisoner exchange to be wrapped up.
“We are calling for the completion of the prisoner exchange, & immediate beginning of the intra-Afghan talks to put an end to agony of a nation,” Abdullah said on Twitter.
In October 2019, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban co-founder who spent eight years in Pakistani custody, led a delegation to Islamabad ahead of a deal the insurgents signed in February with Washington.
Islamabad has said its influence over the Taliban -- which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when it was ousted by a US-led invasion -- encouraged the militants to join talks with the US.
Tensions remain high between Islamabad and Kabul, with the administration of President Ashraf Ghani frequently lashing out at Pakistan for allegedly sheltering, funding and supplying the Taliban.
Pakistan, which was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban regime in the 1990s, denies the claims.
On Sunday, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted that Baradar and other negotiators would discuss “recent developments in Afghanistan’s peace process, relaxation and facilitation of people’s movement and trade between the two neighboring countries.”