There are indications that Pakistan is pushing the Taliban to enter into direct talks with the Kabul government to resolve a long-standing conflict in Afghanistan, Arab News quoted head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council as saying on Wednesday.“They [Pakistan] say that and there are signs that they are doing it,” Umar Daudzai, who holds additional charge as President Ashraf Ghani’s special adviser on reconciliation affairs, said when asked if Pakistan was playing its role to push the Taliban to establish contact with the Kabul government. Remarks by Daudzai, who landed in Islamabad on Tuesday for wide-ranging talks, mark a break from long-time accusations that Islamabad was not doing enough to advance peace in the neighbouring country.To a question, Daudzai denied that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan will have a serious impact on the security situation. “I don’t think it has great impact because we have now fully developed the Afghan National Security Forces that is between 350, 000 to 400, 000 [troops],” he said. “If President Trump had made such announcement in 2012, it might have caused some worries but now we have well-trained Afghan National Security Forces. The only thing that is still needed to be developed is our air power,” he added. When asked if his government was in touch with the Taliban, he said, “Indirectly. Informal, indirect yes.”Daudzai was hopeful that the prospects for peace were stronger than ever before due to changes within the thinking of the Taliban, mostly due to international exposure and the impact of social media. “There are layers [within the Taliban] that are rethinking the whole situation,” he said. “Still there are people that are fanatics, who want to continue fighting but there is also a positive thinking between them … They are more exposed to the world outside by and through media. Social media has [had a] great impact on Taliban thinking.” When asked if a meeting this week between US officials and the Taliban in Saudi Arabia would take place, Daudzai said, “Unless they [Taliban] agree to meet with the Afghan government face to face, that kind of meetings may be difficult to be continued.”But the special envoy was hopeful of a breakthrough in talks this year, “We have declared that 2019 should be the year of peace in Afghanistan. Within 2019, InshAllah (god willing), we will reach to a final peace deal.” Daudzai welcomed the ‘multiplicity’ of the peace effort but said all parties needed better coordination to create consensus at the national, regional and international levels. He denied that Kabul was being marginalized in the peace process and said all countries pursuing negotiations were briefing the government every step of the way. “They are coordinating with us and they are taking our permission,” he said, referring to meetings between the Taliban and representatives from the US, Russia and Iran. “All initiatives should be done in consultation, in conjunction, with the legitimate state of Afghanistan. So if we have that driving seat, then okay, that’s not a problem,” he said. “Somebody can sit in the front row and somebody can sit in the back row but they all are on the same bus with one driver. But if that leadership of the Afghan state is not recognized and is not given value, then we may face a serious challenge,” he added.Daudzai’s comments coincide with Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah saying the Taliban’s refusal to involve the government in peace talks means the end to a conflict that has lasted 17 years can only remain a dream. “In any peace deal in which the rights of our citizens, that have been gained with a lot of sacrifices, are not respected, the deal is a dream and will never happen,” Abdullah told a gathering in Kabul held to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the constitution. Abdullah said the Taliban have not changed since their austere regime was toppled by US-led forces in 2001. “We haven’t seen any change in the Taliban so far and that country that supports them, has not unfortunately changed its policies toward us either,” said Abdullah, referring to Pakistan which Kabul accuses of harbouring Taliban leaders.Daudzai, who will continue meetings in Pakistan on Thursday, is visiting Pakistan at a time when US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has embarked on a new round of visits to the regional countries as part of his peace mission. State Department said Khalilzad will lead an interagency delegation to India, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan from January 8 to 21. “The US goal is to promote dialogue among Afghans about how to end the conflict, and to encourage the parties to come together at the negotiating table to reach a political settlement where every Afghan citizen enjoys equal rights and responsibilities under the rule of law,” a State Department’s statement said.Sources said Khalilzad is likely to arrive in Pakistan early next week. The US envoy has skipped Qatar in his visit, where his was earlier scheduled to hold another round of talks with the Taliban on Jan 9-10, a Taliban source told Daily Times. He rejected the reports that the Taliban called off the meeting, clarifying that the US side postponed the meeting and the message was conveyed to the Taliban political envoys on Wednesday. “We were ready for the meeting and there was no problem about the agenda as we have own agenda and the US has its own. We are pressing the US to tell us if they are leaving and when. US is seeking assurance from the Taliban that it should not face any threats from the Afghan soil in the future,” he added.Published in Daily Times, January 10th 2019.