NEW DELHI: This week, the Taliban dealt a severe blow to the multi-pronged effort by Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and China, to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the militant group.

The Taliban’s rejection of the talks came as a bit of surprise as Pakistan had just a week earlier confirmed that the talks were slated to take place in early March. The Taliban did a volte face this week, as it said that no negotiations could begin until “the occupation of Afghanistan has ended.”

“We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting,” the group said, according to Reuters. The Taliban “once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, blacklists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results.”

Afghan and US officials appealed to the Taliban to reconsider their decision. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that the Taliban “should engage in a peace process and ultimately become a legitimate part of the political system of a sovereign united Afghanistan.”

The news comes as the Taliban steps up violence, seeing some of its biggest gains in the last few months including the fall of the city of Kunduz, Sangin district, Lashkar Gah, Gurian district and Warduj district. Last week, the UN said that civilian casualties in Afghanistan touched a record high in 2015, showing a consistent upward trend since the was started in 2001. Further, according to a recent UNAMA report, women and children show the sharpest rise in casualties.

It also comes ahead of the summer fighting season -- when better weather conditions facilitate a push for fighting.

(Source: UNAMA)

The news, however, isn’t entirely out of the blue, as the peace talks have suffered a series of setbacks and challenges. In fact, a sharp rise in violence and casualties was seen right after the confirmation of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar last year. Omar’s death dealt a blow to to the peace process, removed a unifying figure and led to factionalism within the group. Militants who were opposed to a peace dialogue with the Afghan government reneged on their pledge to new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who is seen as close to Pakistan. The BBC, in fact, quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying that newly appointed leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour had not been appointed "by all Taliban", going against Sharia law. A breakaway faction appointed another leader -- Mullah Mohammed Rasool -- and vowed to push on with their fight against the Afghan state.

The Citizen had raised questions regarding the possible challenges posed by the talks, even when Pakistan had cleared the schedule and confirmed that talks were to soon begin. For one, Mansour’s position on the talks remains unclear. In July, when Pakistan pressured the Taliban leadership to sit down for talks, Mansour disappeared, with his phones turned off. Even more importantly, although Mansour is the Taliban’s appointed leader, the extent of his command and mandate is a big question mark. Is Mansour going to be able to impose his will on the entire Taliban, especially as large numbers of militants have denounced his leadership? Unlikely.

In addition to the Taliban itself being a mood dampener, the Afghan public too is largely skeptical of Pakistan. The reason why Pakistan could push the Taliban leadership to agree to talks is because of the fact that Taliban leaders are based there — mostly in Quetta, in Baluchistan Province — and fighters depend on cross-border sanctuaries to escape Afghan and NATO security forces. Pakistan has a lot of leverage over the Afghan Taliban, no doubt, but this fact is the reason for the skepticism. Afghans have long maintained that Pakistan has aided and abetted terrorism, by providing training, finances and sanctuaries to militants active in Afghanistan (side note: India has a similar grievance in regard to militancy in Jammu and Kashmir).

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai echoed the above skepticism, hitting out at Pakistan repeatedly as relations between the two countries dipped to historic lows. Ghani came to power singing a different tune -- that of talks. The strategy seemed to be bearing fruit, with the Taliban agreeing to a peace dialogue with the Afghan government in July -- a first in the 13 years since the fall of the Taliban government. The talks, and with it Afghan-Pak relations, hit a roadblock in August with the death of Omar, exposing the factionalism within the Taliban and making clear the fact that resolution through dialogue was not going to be easy in the least.

The upswing in violence that followed Omar’s death led to a volt face in Ghani’s rhetoric, as he employed language similar to Karzai and hit out at Pakistan for not doing enough to reign in terror. Till this point, there was an upswing in relations as Ghani soon after being sworn-in visited Pakistan, and then Pakistan’s army chief and head of intelligence visited Kabul.Delegations from the two countries made visits across the border; six Afghan army cadets were sent to Pakistan for training; military efforts were coordinated across the shared border; and Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif both issued statements in support of cooperation and bilateral ties.

The two countries even signed an agreement between Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) -- a move widely criticised by the camp opposing the betterment of ties.

Then Ghani’s trip to Washington happened, where US President Barack Obama announced the decision to slow troop withdrawal. The Taliban, in turn, issued a statement vowing to continue fighting. "This damages all the prospects for peace, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said of the announcement. “This means the war will go on until they are defeated.”

All this has been the source of much criticism. In an interview with The Guardian, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- said that the country’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if it succumbs to pressure from Pakistan.

This view was echoed by Karzai’s associates who sat in on the interview. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former foreign minister and national security adviser said that the policy amounts to the humiliating “appeasement” of a hostile power who would never change its ways. In a similar vein, Omar Daudzai, one of the most influential officials of the Karzai era who served as chief of staff and interior minister, predicts, “There could be a bloody summer, there will be fighting and there will be disappointments on the dialogue table from time to time.” Daudzai, a former ambassador to Islamabad, added that whilst he thought Ghani’s attempts to woo Pakistan were “courageous,” they would ultimately fail to change the country’s behaviour. “He has taken controversial steps that his predecessor didn’t take, and now we have to wait to see whether the Pakistani side is sincere or not,” he said. “But I am far more sceptical than I ever was before about Pakistan’s sincerity.”

And this is by no means an isolated view. An important figure within Afghanistan, Karzai echoes a distrust that runs deep with the Afghan people.

Most recently, earlier in December, Afghanistan’s Intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, a United States favorite who led Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security for five years, resigned, lashing out at Ghani in a Facebook post. “When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif once again stated that Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy our compatriots in the residential areas of Kandahar airport, Khanashin district of Helmand and Takhar and Badakhshan were being martyred and slaughtered, and at least 1,000 liters of blood of our innocent people was shed, in the same red color as the carpet that we catwalked on.”

Given the above, it is perhaps not that surprising that the Taliban has bailed, leaving the Afghan government, the US, China and even Pakistan, with egg on their face.