August 26, 2013

Afghan leader in Pakistan to discuss peace talks

Pakistan is seen as key to the peace process because of its strong historical ties with the Taliban.

By Sebastian Abbot / The Associated Press

ISLAMABAD — Afghanistan's president urged neighboring Pakistan to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban during a visit to Islamabad on Monday, but expectations were low in both countries that much progress would be made in jumpstarting negotiations.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Pakistan comes after an attempt to jumpstart peace talks in the Qatari capital of Doha foundered in June.

AP

Pakistan is seen as key to the process because of its strong historical ties with the Taliban. But Pakistan and Afghanistan have long had troubled relations and view each other with suspicion, especially because Kabul has repeatedly accused Islamabad of providing sanctuary for the insurgents.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was visiting Pakistan for the first time since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office in June. Karzai told Sharif during a joint news conference in Islamabad that he expects the Pakistani government to "facilitate and help in manners it can to the peace process in Afghanistan and in providing opportunities, not a platform, for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban movement."

On Saturday, however, the Afghan president described his expectations for progress during the visit by saying "I am not confident, but I am hopeful." He indicated that previous visits to Pakistan hadn't helped improve security in Afghanistan, but "we must continue our efforts."

Sharif said Monday that he reaffirmed to Karzai "Pakistan's strong and sincere support for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan."

But an editorial published in Pakistan's main English language newspaper, Dawn, was dubious about the two countries getting the "tattered" reconciliation process back on track.

"Hope for the best, but prepare for continuation of the status quo — that may be the best approach as President Karzai arrives in Islamabad," the editorial said.

Karzai's visit comes after an attempt to jumpstart peace talks in the Qatari capital of Doha foundered in June. The Afghan president pulled the plug on the talks even before they began because he was angered that the group marked the opening of its Doha political office with the flag, anthem and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the group's name when they ruled the country.

The Taliban have held secret talks with Karzai's representatives to try to restart the peace process, Afghan officials and a senior Taliban representative recently told The Associated Press. But it's unclear if they have made any headway.

Pakistan released over two dozen Taliban prisoners at the end of last year and early this year in an attempt to facilitate the peace process — complying, at least partially, with a longstanding demand by Kabul.

But the prisoner release ended up causing friction with Kabul — and Washington — which were both frustrated that Pakistan was not monitoring the whereabouts and activities of the former inmates. They were worried the prisoners may simply rejoin the insurgency.

Also, Pakistan has not yet agreed to release its most important Taliban prisoner, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the insurgent group's former deputy commander.

Pakistan helped the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan in 1996, and many insurgents fled across the border following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Islamabad is widely believed to have maintained its ties to the Taliban, despite official denials.

Pakistan has said it supports a peace agreement with the Taliban as the best way to avoid Afghanistan descending into further chaos after most U.S. combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.

There are fears that instability in Afghanistan would provide cover for domestic Taliban militants at war with the Pakistani state. Those militants already have some sanctuaries in Afghanistan and periodically stage cross-border attacks into Pakistan.

But Pakistan and Afghanistan may have trouble agreeing on what role the Taliban should play in the country following a peace deal.

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