x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pakistani power can aid Afghan peace process

Mr Karzai and Mr Sharif need to use their combined powers to attempt to negotiate a pact with the Taliban

Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, travelled to Islamabad yesterday more in hope than expectation. He was there for official talks with Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's new prime minister, and to discuss ways to open a peace dialogue with the Taliban.

The underlying pessimism that surrounded his visit will most likely be borne out in the next few days. The Taliban have previously spurned all offers of talks with Mr Karzai, who they are content to dismiss as an American stooge with no legitimacy.

Enter Pakistan. Although it has a uniquely powerful influence on the Taliban and, indeed, Mr Sharif campaigned on a policy of fostering peace with the insurgent group, most observers do not believe its persuasive powers will be put to good use soon.

But that rather obscures the facts. Not only can Pakistan help, but its regional influence will only grow stronger as the US reduces its military capacity in Afghanistan.

Although Mr Karzai is often characterised as a weak and erratic leader who seems destined to emulate the fate of Mohammad Najibullah - the Afghan leader left in place by the Soviets after their 1989 withdrawal and who was deposed in 1992 - Afghanistan and Pakistan have many shared interests relating to security and stability. Both aspects are crucial to the recovery of their struggling economies and improving the prospects of ordinary citizens on both sides of the border.

Top of Mr Karzai's current wish-list is the release of some high-profile Taliban prisoners held in Pakistan's jails, a concession he hopes to dangle as a sufficiently big incentive to bring the insurgents to the table.

The question now is one of will, and in particular, how much Mr Sharif's new government is willing to use its political capital to aid its neighbour.

Even then, there will still be huge hurdles to overcome. This was demonstrated this week when Asmatullah Muawiya, a Pakistani Taliban leader in the Punjab, welcomed Pakistan's renewed offer to host peace talks. The group's central command responded by stripping him of his role and condemning his comments.

Mr Karzai and Mr Sharif owe it to their people to defy the pessimists and use their combined powers to attempt to negotiate a pact with the Taliban that one hopes will bring years of regional unrest to a halt.