ISLAMABAD – Prospects of jumpstarting peace talks with the Taliban are becoming increasingly dim amid recent battlefield gains by the insurgents in Afghanistan, an embattled government in Kabul and growing suspicions of Pakistan's good intentions in facilitating such negotiations.
Even if Pakistan wanted to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table, its leverage as a safe haven for the Taliban has weakened as the insurgents' southern Afghan heartland has expanded, providing them with more places to hide at home.
The Taliban were toppled in the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and have fought against the Kabul government and NATO forces ever since. Their insurgency escalated after the end in 2014 of the U.S.-NATO combat mission.
That pullout left inexperienced and poorly trained Afghan forces to battle insurgents largely on their own. When the Taliban launched their annual warm-weather offensive last year, Kabul responded with large-scale military operations, but the Taliban gained ground.
A report released this month by the independent Afghan Analysts Network offered a breakdown of the southern Helmand province, showing the Taliban in control of parts of many districts and all of other districts, with the exception of district capitals.
The AAN, which is based in Kabul, concluded that the Taliban have become better armed and better organized, and have established "well-equipped and mobile commando-like" units.
As a result, neighboring Pakistan, which has acted as a traditional go-between, has lost some of its leverage over the insurgents and may no longer have the authority to bring the Taliban into the talks.
"Pakistan has derived its influence over the Taliban through the safe havens it provides to the group on its soil," said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"Now the Taliban are developing new sanctuaries in Afghanistan, and they may not have as much need to heed the requests of their patron," Kugelman told The Associated Press. "In effect, if the Pakistanis come calling, the Taliban may choose not to listen, and simply keep on fighting."
A four-nation group that included Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States launched efforts earlier this year to try to bring Afghanistan's protracted war to a negotiated end. They developed a roadmap and promised an early start to talks. Pakistan was seen as key to bringing the Taliban to the table.
But the Taliban issued a statement saying they would not participate in the talks and their new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, claimed the Taliban were winning the war and were "in a better state than at any other time."
Meanwhile, Islamabad's commitment to moving things forward has come under scrutiny, particularly after reports surfaced this week that Mullah Mohammed Rasool, leader of a renegade Taliban faction, was arrested in Pakistan.
While Islamabad has refused to confirm Rasool's arrest, an intelligence official and two senior Taliban figures told the AP that he was detained by Pakistani authorities — a development that came after he expressed a willingness to speak directly with the Afghan government. The Pakistani official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence data. The Taliban sought anonymity because they did not want to come to the attention of the Pakistani authorities.
If confirmed, the reports would feed into the perception that Pakistan might be reluctant to pressure the Taliban to come to the talks.
It wouldn't be the first time Pakistan has detained a Taliban leader who tried to talk peace directly with Kabul. In 2010, Islamabad arrested Abdul Ghani Baradar after reports emerged that he had tried to talk to Afghanistan's president at the time, Hamid Karzai.
According to the two Taliban figures, Mansoor — who took over as Taliban leader after the insurgents announced last summer that their founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had been dead for two years — told his commanders who are still in safe havens in Pakistan to go to Afghanistan if they cannot resist the pressure from Islamabad.
Despite gains on the ground, Mansoor has also had to deal with rifts and infighting since officially taking over the Taliban — along with a new rival, the emerging Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. This makes him likely more intent on rallying followers to unite in battle against Kabul than on getting into any peace talks.
Some observers have also questioned what Kabul can bring to the negotiations.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani faces plenty of troubles at home — from the surging Taliban, a contracting economy and political divisions, to a desperate need to keep funds from the international community flowing in after the NATO pullout of combat troops.
Anatol Lieven, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, who is also closely involved in efforts to bring warring Afghan sides to the table, said he was struck on recent trips to Kabul by a "paralysis" in the power-sharing system between Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Ghani's recent attempt to strike an intelligence-sharing deal with Pakistan fell through following opposition from Abdullah.
"It seems to me that whatever Kabul could offer ... is far, far short of a settlement that the Taliban would be asking for," said Lieven, who has also written a book on Pakistan, titled, "Pakistan: A Hard Country."
Pakistan's special adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, told the AP that Islamabad is trying to persuade the Taliban leaders who are in Pakistan to join the talks. He also acknowledged that some key Afghan Taliban figures live in Pakistan and receive medical care here.
"They are scattered all over the country. I am not saying we are hosting them. For the last 35 years they have been coming and going," said Aziz. "All I will say is we are trying our best to persuade them to talk."
Pakistan, which sees most foreign policy issues through the prism of its shaky relationship with nuclear archrival neighboring India has expressed concern about India's increasing influence in Afghanistan, particularly in the field of defense, says Amir Rana.
Rana, of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies in Islamabad, said Pakistan first and foremost wants a peace process where its concerns are addressed.
Even if a peace process got off the ground, questions remain what it could accomplish.
"I can't imagine any sort of power-sharing arrangement between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban," said Kugelman.
Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.