UN official says Pakistan is upsetting Taliban talks

Pakistan has dismissed accusations that the arrests this month of senior members of the Afghan Taliban were intended to spoil any potential mediation.

LAHORE // Pakistan yesterday dismissed accusations by a top UN official that the arrests this month of senior members of the Afghan Taliban were intended to upset any potential mediation between the militants and the West. Kai Eide, who stepped down as head of the mission in Afghanistan this month, told the BBC that secret talks between the world body and the Taliban had ground to a halt since Islamabad arrested a number of top militants, including the group's number two, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has floated reconciling with Taliban leaders, while the US has backed attempts to bring more moderate fighters into the government. But Mr Eide suggested that Pakistan was trying to thwart those attempts at reconciliation. "The Pakistanis did not play the role they should have played," Mr Eide told the broadcaster. "They must have known about this. "I don't believe these people were arrested by coincidence. They must have known who they were, what kind of role they were playing - and you see the result today."

But government officials and analysts quickly dismissed the allegations. "The fact of the matter is that Mullah Baradar's arrest was a joint operation with the US and had nothing to do with talks or reconciliation," Abdul Basit, a foreign ministry spokesman, said to Reuters. "Pakistan is committed to support an Afghanistan-led reintegration and reconciliation process so any other contentions, we believe, are a misrepresentation and misinterpretation of our intentions."

In an interview from his home in Norway, Mr Eide said the UN met Taliban leaders in Dubai and other places outside Afghanistan, and that the talks had the blessing of the Taliban's Supreme Commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar. It was the first time a UN official had confirmed that the world body was in talks with the senior Taliban leadership, often referred to as the Quetta Shura. Mr Eide said that while some of the discussions had to do with humanitarian affairs, such as securing access for the World Food Programme to areas under the Taliban's control, others were of a political nature.

"There was an increase in intensity of contacts, but this process came to a halt following the arrests that took place in Pakistan," he later told the Associated Press. But the Pakistan army spokesman Gen Athar Abbas said the timings of the arrests had nothing to do with the UN's talks with the Taliban. "The army and other law enforcement agencies were busy in trying to combat the militants at every level," he said.

"In the tribal agencies, in and near Peshawar and in different parts of the country, it was simply a coincidence that we tracked the No 2 leader while the talks were going on." Gen Abbas also said that arresting a senior Taliban leader takes many weeks and months of planning, and the final stage in the case of Baradar just happened to coincide with the talks. Mr Eide said discussions with the Taliban began in 2009, tailed off during the elections, but picked up again after that. That is, until the arrests of Baradar, as well as several other senior Taliban members.

Talks between Mr Karzai and members of the Taliban had also ground to a halt, he said. "The effect of that [the arrests] - was certainly negative on our possibility of continuing the political process," he said. Yasmeen Rahman, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, belittled the talks, saying the fact that they were conducted with such secrecy robbed them of any credibility. "They were simply the beginning of a contact which could have yielded results and may not have. What Pakistan was doing in terms of spending time and resources and money in hunting these Taliban was in line with the international community's policy of fighting terrorism. How can we be faulted for doing so?"

Pakistan's capture of Baradar was held up as a huge victory for its counter-terrorism efforts, and was applauded by the United States and its western allies. "The Americans have clearly told us to hunt out the Taliban and arrest them wherever we can find them," Rasool Baksh Raees, a political analyst, said. "If the UN is following a different policy then we need to be taken into confidence and brought on board and one policy needs to be followed."

* The National