Karzai: Pakistan key in peace negotiations with the Taliban

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has stressed the need for Pakistan's help in arranging peace talks with the Taliban in a meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who assured him of his support.

Pakistan's prime minister Nawaz Sharif (right) talks with Afghan president Hamid Karzai during their meeting in Islamabad.
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ISLAMABAD // The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, yesterday stressed the need for Pakistan's help in arranging peace talks with the Taliban in a meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who assured him of his support.

Pakistan backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. It is seen as a crucial gatekeeper in attempts by the American and Afghan governments to contact insurgent leaders who fled to Pakistan after the group was forced out in 2001.

But Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of playing a double game in the 12-year-old war, saying its neighbour, facing a Taliban insurgency of its own, makes pronouncements about peace but allows elements of its military to play a spoiling role.

Pakistan is keen to limit the influence of its old rival, India, in Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai, who has close ties to India, said he had "primarily and with emphasis" asked the Pakistanis to help with reconciliation as most foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year.

He wants Pakistan to help arrange contacts between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council, the government body tasked with reconciliation, or release high-ranking Taliban prisoners who might act as interlocutors.

Mr Sharif, who appeared with Mr Karzai to deliver statements after their talks in the Pakistani capital, did not specifically address those requests.

It is unclear whether the Afghan Taliban, in power from 1996 to 2001, will have a role in the next government.

The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and impose a strict version of Islamist rule, have refused to talk with Mr Karzai, accusing him of being an American puppet.

"For the two countries, the primary concern is the lack of security for their citizens and the continued menace of terrorism," said Mr Karzai. "It is this area that needs to have primary and focused attention from both governments."

Mr Sharif assured him of support and closed his address by listing economic deals the two countries had struck.

"Pakistan has strong and sincere support for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. We fully agreed that this process has to be inclusive, Afghan-owned and Afghan-led," Mr Sharif said.

The Taliban in June set up an office in Doha, touted as a conduit for peace talks with the United States, but the office infuriated Mr Karzai the day it opened by displaying a flag bearing symbols from the time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai accused the Taliban of running an embassy rather than an office. The office has since closed.

Mr Karzai has made 19 trips to Pakistan, but this was his first meeting with Mr Sharif since his landslide win in Pakistan's May elections.

An Afghan-based analyst said people there might be disappointed that Mr Karzai and Mr Sharif had not shown more solidarity on the question of the Taliban insurgency.

"The two leaders were not on the same page," said Barhan Osman, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network think-tank.

"One was talking about the peace process as the top issue and one was talking about trade as the top issue ... it was not what the Afghans were looking for."

Even if Mr Sharif wanted to persuade the Taliban to talk to Mr Karzai, it was unclear how much influence he had, Mr Osman said.

Security and foreign policy in Pakistan is overseen by the military. Ever since Pakistan was carved out of British-ruled India in 1947, the military has seen India as Pakistan's greatest threat.