The urge for Afghan peace, at least theoretically and at times breaching the boundary of wishful thinking, is too strong amongst all stake holders. That’s why any and every initiative, howsoever elusive looking it might be, attracts wide spread acclaim. Afghan government and Taliban leadership are, once again, in talks, in Doha. Two rounds have already taken place beginning September. Though multiple sources have confirmed the formal contacts, available details about the content of these parleys are only scanty.

The US embassy in Afghanistan declined to comment. US State Department Spokesperson has said in a recent statement that US has no role in Doha talks between Afghan Taliban and Afghan Government. If US has no role in it then there is also no role of QCG in it, may be it is Afghan government’s effort through Hikmat Yar. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman and a leading member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council have also said that they had no knowledge. Nevertheless, reportedly, face-to-face talks “went positively” and were held “in a trouble-free atmosphere.”

A Quetta Shura member told The Guardian that a US official was present at both rounds of talks, but no Pakistani officials attended. Pakistan had put the nuts and bolts of Doha process when it commenced in 2013. Earlier known as Istanbul process, the peace parleys were moved out of Turkey under American pressure to reduce Pakistan’s influence over the talks. American effort in this regard have continued ever since.

The billion dollar question is: Has Pakistan been by-passed or is it purposefully staying away from the process, at least for the time being? It will take some time to unfold an accurate answer to this critical question. Pakistan losing its leverage with Taliban is likely to have many implications. One time favourite— Gulbadin Hikmatyar— has already taken solo flight. Such a failure with regards to other Taliban groups would haunt Pakistan for years to come, as Pakistan’s reaction would meltdown to welcoming the fait accompli as Taliban splinters gravitate to the ‘puppet’ Afghan government one by one. However, given the track record of the Afghan peace process since the Soviet days, chances of occurrence of such a proposition are only remote.

The Middle East based Afghan Taliban officials revealed that the talks had not yielded much, and only the previously stated positions were re-emphasised. These sources also added that US officials were part of the process, although they did not specify whether they were directly involved in the talks.

Pakistan’s consistent position has been that a politically negotiated settlement is vital for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan still considers the multi-lateral initiative, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), as an appropriate forum. Negotiations for reconciliation between the warring factions is an intra-Afghan matter and Pakistan fully supports an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. QCG is an effort on part of Pakistan to facilitate this peace process. All countries involved in the peace process have given their undertaking to contribute positively in achieving this end goal for Afghanistan. Aim of QCG is to bring warring factions within Afghanistan to the negotiating table.

The peace deal between the Afghan Government and Hizb-e-Islami was welcomed by Pakistan, and it considers, at least ostensibly, that this deal could serve as a model for talks with Taliban. Pakistan’s end goal is to see lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan, which is in the interest of the entire region, particularly, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since the Bonn I days, Pakistan has maintained a principled stance on the establishment of lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan under an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

During the parleys, Afghan and the US officials demanded of Taliban a ceasefire declaration, laying down of arms and starting formal peace talks. And in response, the Taliban side demanded that the group be officially recognised as a political movement, its leaders’ names be removed from a UN blacklist and all prisoners be released.

Taliban’s direct meeting with Afghan and the US officials is, however, a departure from their previous stance on the issue. After the death of Mullah Mansoor, the movement had resolved not to sit for talks with government representatives or with the Americans. May be those in favour of negotiations have prevailed. What is important to note is that lines of communications have been established, while apparently bypassing Pakistan. The Doha round of talks was reportedly preceded by arrests, in Pakistan, of a number of top ranking leaders of the Taliban movement.

These talks indicate the deepening distrust between Kabul and Islamabad as well as between the Taliban and Islamabad. A close aide of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said both the Taliban and the Kabul government have become deeply disillusioned with Pakistan. “Pakistan was double dealing and insincere with the Afghan government,” he said. “We no longer think we need Pakistan and the Taliban think the same thing”, he added. Meanwhile, a meeting in Riyadh on October 18 between Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah focused on the status of Afghanistan’s peace process and the latest developments in Kabul’s relations with Pakistan.

With or without Pakistan, the Doha engagement could pose problems for the Taliban if the talks don’t deliver any tangible outcome any time soon; and that is highly doubtful. The fundamental issue is a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces; but Washington and Kabul are in no mood to even consider that proposition. If the talks continue without any signs of real progress, the Kabul regime could use the interregnum to establish links and try to wean some Taliban activists from the mainstream led by Ameer Haibatulla Akhunzada. The factions that do not support contacts with the government may, in the event of prolonged and protracted negotiations, ask the leadership to walk away from the stalemated process. In either case, it is likely to create fissures amongst the Taliban rank and file.

Militarily, Taliban have gathered strength over the past two years, carrying out major attacks in Kabul and taking over swaths of territory for the first time since being ousted during the 2001 US-led military intervention. The United States has continued to provide air power and other military support to Kabul, preventing the Taliban from taking making more ground, and or holding it under their control for long duration. Taliban would face a dilemma, whether to remain part of a process that does not hold any real promise for reconciliation and risk losing volunteer fighters.

A former Taliban leader recently opined: “Some Taliban favour [direct] talks with the Americans because the key to resolving the Afghan conundrum rests with the United States.” The Taliban have long been seeking direct talks with the United States to discuss a timeframe for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. “Since the Americans had toppled our government and the invading forces are still stationed in Afghanistan; therefore we would like to have talks with them first,” another Taliban leader stated.

There is no immediate prospect for any significant development in reconciliation endeavours. But for both sides so much is at stake in terms of whether each side would be able to demonstrate to the people and to the world that it has achieved a degree of success at the expense of the other. It is unclear where the current fight and talk strategy would lead. Unless a breakthrough is reached in the form of a sustainable ceasefire, the process may soon fizzle out like many previous initiatives. Abdullah-Ghani rift could add to stalemating the Doha or any other peace process.