If Kabul and Islamabad can overcome their distrust of each other, Pakistan could play a key role in Taliban peace talks, analysts and diplomats say.
Pakistan's role could be crucial in Taliban talks
ISLAMABAD // Pakistan could play a key role in Taliban peace talks desperately sought by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan leader, analysts and diplomats said, if Kabul and Islamabad can overcome their distrust of each other. Mr Karzai has frequently accused Pakistan of allowing Taliban fighters a safe haven and turning a blind eye to their incursions into Afghanistan, yet he made little acknowledgement of his government's own failings to provide security or protect the porous frontier. A second round of exploratory talks on ending the insurgency wreaking havoc in both countries is expected in Saudi Arabia between former Taliban figures and Afghan officials, following a similar meeting in September. Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president, was part of an informal discussion between Mr Karzai and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in New York last week regarding potential peace talks, according to an Afghan official. The Saudi kingdom's ambassador to Pakistan, Ali S Awadh Asseri, confirmed that Kabul had approached Riyadh to help facilitate talks with the Taliban. But the Saudis need commitments from "all factions" before taking further steps, he stated. "President Karzai requested our government to hold a dialogue with the Taliban. We believe in the unity, stability and sovereignty of Afghanistan, therefore we are happy to hear such things," Mr Asseri said in an interview. "However, unless all factions are committed to sincere, dedicated and fruitful dialogue we cannot do much. Mr Karzai has asked us, but we haven't done that much yet because we are waiting for that commitment. "We are in favour of dialogue with people who are not terrorists." Involving Pakistan could be a positive step towards peace, Mr Asseri said. "I have no doubt that Pakistan could play a positive role in achieving peace in Afghanistan, being an immediate neighbour and a well-wisher." Nawaz Sharif, the two-time former prime minister, was the one Pakistani at the September meeting, according to unconfirmed reports. Mr Sharif's mediation between warring Afghan mujahideen factions in 1993 makes him a natural choice for mediating between the Taliban and Kabul, his spokesman said, but declined to confirm his involvement. Current Taliban leaders scoffed at the September meeting as unrepresentative, and have again scorned Mr Karzai's latest appeal for dialogue. They demand the departure of 65,000 to 70,000 US and Nato forces from Afghanistan as a precondition for any talks. Pakistan, credited with nurturing the fundamentalist militia in the 1990s and backing their takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, denies any links with the current crop of leaders or knowledge of their whereabouts. But it could call on its past influence with leaders still active in the movement, some analysts believe, and persuade them to sever ties with al Qa'eda - a key precondition from Kabul and the international community. "Pakistan may play a very constructive role by directly or indirectly persuading the Taliban to do two things: one, cut off all relations with al Qa'eda and have nothing more to do with this global jihad," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "Secondly, it could persuade the Taliban to negotiate in good faith. They have to renounce armed conflict. The guarantees in return would be that the Taliban's fundamental concerns are taken care of." Such concerns centre on three issues, Mr Rais said: an Iraq-style timetable for foreign forces' exit from Afghanistan; the dominance of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's political rivals; and Islamic law. "If the foreign troops' presence remains an open-ended issue, then the Taliban may not come around. They would not like to reach any peace agreement while there is no definite date regarding US forces' exit from Afghanistan," Mr Rais said. "But if they can negotiate when and how the troops withdraw, then I think they would like to come aboard." Mr Karzai last week vowed to "go to any length" to protect Mohammad Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban on whose head the United States has placed a bounty of US$10 million (Dh30.67m), if he emerged from seven years' hiding to enter peace talks. He said western leaders would have to remove him if they disagreed. But Mr Karzai has rejected the Taliban's demand that foreign forces leave, and the Taliban have rejected Mr Karzai's offer of safe passage for their wanted leader. Mr Asseri stressed compromise. "A pre-negotiated and principally agreed-upon basis could provide a viable route for a dignified exit for all parties concerned. Compromise remains an essential ingredient to strengthen the peace efforts." Mr Rais said Mr Sharif would be the most appropriate figure to represent Pakistan. "The Saudis trust him more than any leader in Pakistan. They have a long-term interest and faith in him. If we had to use the influence of any single leader in Pakistan it would be Nawaz Sharif. "The position that Nawaz has taken against US forces' aggression makes him more acceptable to Taliban on both sides of the border." Recent distrust between Kabul and Islamabad needs to be put aside so Pakistan can be included in any negotiations, said Talat Masood, a security analyst. "Trust works both ways. If Pakistan is not associated it can give a wrong message. If you want regional players to play a positive role, you've got to keep them involved and see that their interests are protected, instead of only protecting the interests of superpowers or Nato," Mr Masood said. "I think Pakistan's strategic interests lie in not having a hostile regime in Afghanistan." firstname.lastname@example.org