A planned meeting between the Taliban and the Pakistani leadership has been cancelled following a complaint by the Afghan government to the United Nations about their neighbor interfering in Afghan affairs.

A representative of President Ashraf Ghani’s government at the United Nations sent a letter to the UN Security Council last Friday, saying an invitation for the Taliban to meet the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was a “violation of the national sovereignty of Afghanistan”.

The letter signed by Nazifullah Salarzai, Deputy Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN, who noted that “engagements, which are taking place under the pretext of support for peace efforts in Afghanistan, are void of any degree of coordination and consultation with the Government of Afghanistan”.

Salarzai confirmed the authenticity of a copy of the letter that has been circulating online.

The reports of the meeting, which were confirmed by the Taliban, sparked anger among Afghan people and officials. Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of not only supporting the Taliban insurgency but also providing safe havens to terror groups that work against its national interest.

The letter read: “This initiative is a source of deep regret and concern to the people and Government of Afghanistan as it amounts to the official recognition and legitimization of an armed group that poses a serious threat to security and stability of Afghanistan,” reflecting a popular opinion within the country.

Relations strained over ‘lack of action on terrorists’

Sibghat Ahmadi, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, also informed local media that the letter was authentic.

“Yes, we have lodged a complaint. There are UN sanctions against members of the Taliban delegation which does not allow them to travel. It is a clear violation of the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which is a red-line for us,” he said.

Relations between the two countries have been strained in the last few years, after persistent demands from Kabul for Islamabad to take tangible action against terror groups operating on its territory.

The latest saga is hardly surprising. The Trump administration has had special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad involved in talks with the Taliban in recent months to try to set the stage for a potential peace negotiation to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. But the Afghan government has been left out of several rounds of talks, largely because the Taliban refused to talk to them at this stage.

However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has continued to reach out to the parties involved and pushed international stakeholders for an Afghan-owned and led peace process.

On Monday, in a meeting with Mr Khalilzad, President Ghani urged the Taliban and Pakistan to be open about their relations. “The Taliban should clarify their ties with Pakistan, terrorist groups, and the criminal economy,” he said.

‘Can’t travel’

Later, the Taliban called off their meeting with Pakistani officials and said their leaders were unable to travel because they were blacklisted by the UN.

The insurgent group had previously said they intended to discuss “Pakistan-Afghan relations and issues pertaining to Afghan refugees and Afghan businessmen”, attempting to portray themselves as representing Afghan interests.

“The Islamic Emirate had arranged for their representatives to participate but unfortunately, most members of the negotiations team were unable to travel due to the US and UN blacklist and the meeting was postponed,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said.

Many Afghans felt this excuse was “laughable”, considering the UN blacklist did not stop the Taliban leaders from travelling to Moscow, the United Arab Emirates or Iran for similar meetings over the past few months.

“The matter of Taliban not being able to travel to Pakistan due to UN sanctions is a laughable ruse. Having traveled out of Pakistan and far-off destinations of the world, the Taliban certainly don’t need UN permission for a meeting at home,” former Afghan deputy foreign minister Jawed Ludin said.

He noted the long-held suspicion among Afghans that Pakistan was providing a base for many Taliban leaders.

Spozmai Stanikzai, a former diplomat and student of international relations, said: “It’s a psychological war. In my view, they just want to show the US and political opposition groups in Afghanistan that the Afghan government is the main obstacle in the peace process. Otherwise, they are a rickshaw ride away from meeting Imran Khan.

“[The] ‘Quetta Shora’ in Pakistan doesn’t need a visa or tickets to meet Imran Khan. They get instructions from Pakistan. After all the international pressure on Pakistan, I am sure they didn’t want to meet with the Taliban – a known terrorist group – days after attacks in Pulwana and Zahedan.”