KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban have called off meetings in Pakistan, including a first audience with a national leader since their regime was ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001, after the Afghan government protested to the United Nations Security Council that leaders of the insurgent group were violating travel restrictions under international sanctions.
A spokesman for the Taliban said on Sunday that representatives of the group had been forced to postpone a trip to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, to meet with Prime Minister Imran Khan and to continue peace talks with American diplomats because of the travel restrictions.
A letter submitted to the United Nations on Friday by Nazifullah Salarzai, Afghanistan’s deputy representative to the body, said the Taliban’s trip to Pakistan — and particularly the meeting with Mr. Khan — would amount to “the official recognition and legitimization of an armed group that poses a serious threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan and whose members are sanctioned by provisions of the U.N. Security Council.”
Afghan and Taliban officials said the Afghan government complaint was most likely only part of the reason for cancellation, particularly since some of the Taliban delegation members have long been living in Pakistan anyway, but it has renewed a debate around the ability of insurgent leaders to travel freely in recent years.
Taliban representatives have popped up everywhere from luxury hotels in the United Arab Emirates to bullet trains in China to conference halls a stone’s throw from the Kremlin in Moscow, even as violence linked to the group has intensified in Afghanistan. Afghan officials have expressed fear that in a rush to facilitate a peace deal, its international partners are emboldening the Taliban by giving the group more freedom of movement without receiving concessions in return.
Other reasons for the cancellation include internal disagreements over the issue among the Taliban, who were divided over how close they wanted to be seen to the government of Pakistan during peace negotiations, according to insurgent leaders who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the group’s internal deliberations. The Pakistani military has long supported the Taliban and has provided Taliban leaders with sanctuary from American airstrikes and Afghan operations.
In a sign that the meeting with Mr. Khan had become a divisive issue within their ranks, the Taliban made no mention of it in the statement about canceling the trip, instead focusing on the meetings with American diplomats.
Pakistani security agencies were also divided about the benefits of meeting with the Taliban at a time when the country is under pressure from two other neighbors, Iran and India, following recent attacks against their forces by militant groups reportedly operating from Pakistan.
Two Afghan officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media said it was likely that Pakistan had called off the meeting because the country did not want to further complicate its international standing after being placed on the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force, an international body combating money laundering and terrorism financing.
The Taliban’s meetings in Pakistan would have fallen around the same time as a high-profile visit to the country by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, raising rumors that he might also be involved in some of the peace meetings. Prince Mohammed arrived in Islamabad on Sunday at the start of a weeklong visit to Asia.
The United States has enlisted Saudi Arabia to aid the Afghan peace process, but the Sunni kingdom’s rivalry with Iran and tangled relations with other regional countries, including Qatar, where the Taliban’s negotiators have an office, has complicated the process.
Prince Mohammed arrived in Pakistan with a pledge to invest $20 billion in the country, which has struggled economically in recent years. Pakistan bestowed its highest civilian honor on the crown prince, whose image as a reformer suffered a blow after allegations that he had ordered the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi last October in Istanbul.
Even before the announcement of Taliban meetings in Pakistan, the Afghan government was already furious that regional countries had been accommodating trips by leaders of the insurgent group, including a conference in Moscow where a large Taliban delegation met with Afghan opposition politicians.
One Afghan politician attending the Moscow event said Taliban leaders told them they had flown Qatar Airways, a commercial airline, from their political office in Doha. They were put up at the Hotel Metropol, which once housed part of the Bolshevik government, and where the first Soviet constitution was drafted.
Taliban leaders have long managed to evade travel restrictions, and senior Afghan officials have questioned the United Nations’ effectiveness in policing them. Taliban representatives have visited capitals such as Tehran and Beijing, on chartered flights as well as commercial airlines.
In China, the Taliban representatives toured several cities and traveled by high-speed bullet trains, visibly moved by technology that they told their hosts was inconceivable in Afghanistan because of war, according to a former Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the Taliban.
In a meeting with American diplomats in Abu Dhabi last month, the senior official said, Taliban representatives who had come from Pakistan had flown on a Pakistani military plane, a claim that could not be independently verified.
While most of the Taliban leaders who are part of the group’s Qatar office carry Afghan passports, some Taliban members have used fake names and Pakistani passports to evade detection. When their former leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was killed by a drone strike in the Pakistani province of Balochistan while returning from a trip to Iran, an intact Pakistani passport bearing his picture was found next to his incinerated car. Travel data showed that he had frequently flown to Dubai on commercial airlines and that he had crossed the Pakistani border to Iran by car.
“They travel on ordinary flights to these countries, they travel like an ordinary person,” said Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander now living in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. “The Taliban members are invited by big countries like the United States, Russia, China, France and others,” who can “guarantee everything, including the blacklist issue,” he said.