ISLAMABAD – As the battlefield losses in Afghanistan mount and entire swathes of the country that cost hundreds of U.S.-led coalition and Afghan military lives to secure slip back into Taliban hands, four counties __ Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States __ are meeting Monday in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad to try to craft a plan for peace in the war-shattered country.
But analysts and participants alike say that while there are four countries talking, much of the hope for progress toward peace rests with Pakistan — which is accused of harboring some of the fiercest factions of the Taliban, including the Haqqani group, a U.S.-declared terrorist organization. Pakistan for its part says its influence over the Taliban is overrated.
"Even at the best of times they (Taliban) didn't listen to us," the Pakistani prime minister's special adviser on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz told The Associated Press. "Look at Bamiyan," he said, referring to the Taliban's destruction in the summer of 2001 of some of the world's most precious statues of Buddha. The Taliban blew up the statues, ignoring the roars of dissent including from Pakistan.
Aziz will address the summit opening at 10 a.m. (0500 GMT). His remarks are to be carried live on the government-owned Pakistan Television.
Aziz refused to say whether Pakistan was in possession of a list of Taliban representatives who are prepared to enter into peace negotiations. The presence of such a list was announced Sunday by Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Imtiaz Gul, whose Center for Research and Security Studies has delved deeply into the Afghan conflict and Pakistan's decades-old involvement, says Pakistan does have significant leverage with the Taliban.
Pakistan could kick out all the Afghan combatants from its territory, including the Haqqani leadership, but it is the consequences of that action that Pakistan is neither willing nor able to endure, Gul said. Militants in both countries are allied, and getting rid of the Haqqanis could unleash a violent backlash inside Pakistan, where the army has been fighting for several years to defeat a coalition of militant groups largely based in its border areas with Afghanistan.
That battle has been brutal with thousands of Pakistani soldiers killed and wounded and thousands more Pakistani civilians killed in deadly retaliatory suicide attacks by the militants.
But Gul said Pakistan's army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, who last week went to Afghanistan, has given hints that the military is ready to move away from past support of militants, even those considered friendly to Pakistan. Travelling to Afghanistan unaccompanied by the country's powerful ISI intelligence agency, which has long been considered the force behind the Taliban, was a signal, said Gul, that Sharif was centering future policy decisions only at army headquarters.
Changes won't come quickly, says Gul, "but important for us is to turn the page (from supporting militants) and I think Gen. Raheel Sharif has turned that page."
While the Taliban are not invited to Monday's talks, a senior Taliban official, who asked not to be identified fearing exposure and capture, told The Associated Press that two Taliban delegates, currently headquartered in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, will meet "soon" with China's representatives. The meeting, which will also include Pakistan, is to be held in Islamabad, said the official.
Still there seems little to no chance for early peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Taliban, which is struggling to consolidate its leadership council following the revelation last year that leader and founder Mullah Mohammed Omar had been dead for more than two years, have drawn their line in the sand: No official talks with the Afghan government on a peaceful end to their protracted and bloody war until direct talks can be held with the United States.
"We want talks with the Americans first because we consider them a direct party," the Taliban official said in a face-to-face interview with The AP.
The Taliban want recognition of their office in Qatar under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name they used when they ruled Afghanistan until being ousted by the U.S.-led coalition in 2001. They also want the United Nations to remove the Taliban from its wanted list and it wants its prisoners released from Afghan jails.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants no part of giving the Taliban official recognition.
Maulvi Shazada Shaeid, a representative on Afghanistan's High Peace Council, tasked with seeking peace with the Taliban, said the distance between the two sides is vast, holding out little hope for peace.
"In the current situation it is not possible to bring peace," he said.
Barnett Rubin, a long-time adviser to the U.S. government on Afghanistan and current senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation with New York University, probably best summed it up in an email interview on the eve of the talks, saying: "Both the Afghan government and the official Taliban leadership in Pakistan are committed to continuing the war unless the other side agrees to their framework for negotiation. The Afghan government is counting on Pakistan to tip the balance from the rear, and the Taliban are counting on tipping the balance on the front lines."
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.