ISLAMABAD (AP) — The presidents of Afghanistan and Iran convened in Pakistan on Thursday for a three-way summit that is expected to focus on specific steps Islamabad can take to facilitate peace talks with the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan is seen as key to the peace process because of its historical ties with the Taliban and their feared ally, the Haqqani network. The leaders of both groups are believed to be based in Pakistan and in close touch with Pakistani intelligence officials.
One of the people Afghan President Hamid Karzai was scheduled to meet during his trip is Maulana Samiul Haq, known as the spiritual father of the Taliban because he runs an Islamic seminary in northwest Pakistan that has taught many of the group's leaders. Haq has also supported the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Haq urged the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to work together to push U.S.-led forces out of Afghanistan.
"This is a time when the Taliban are defeating Western forces in Afghanistan," Haq told The Associated Press. "A forceful stance by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran will bring peace and stability in this region by pushing out the foreign forces."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also likely to focus in the meetings on a proposed pipeline that would deliver natural gas from his country to Pakistan. The U.S. has opposed the initiative because of tensions with Iran over its nuclear program, and has pushed for an alternative pipeline that would transport gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan.
But Pakistan is facing acute gas shortages and has pledged to go forward with the Iran pipeline, despite U.S. threats of sanctions.
The summit comes at a time when momentum for peace talks with the Taliban seems to be growing.
The U.S. and Afghan governments have begun secret three-way discussions with the Taliban, The Wall Street Journal quoted Karzai as saying Thursday. Karzai believes most Taliban are "definitely" interested in a peace settlement, the paper said.
The Taliban are setting up an office in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in the first step toward formal negotiations. Also, the Obama administration is considering releasing five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay as a starting point for talks.
But the success of the process could hinge on whether Pakistan chooses to cooperate and feels its interests are being addressed. Iran will also be a factor since it is wary of the Taliban, a radical Sunni Muslim group opposed to the Shiites who make up a majority of Iran's population.
Pakistan helped the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and many members of the group, reportedly including chief Mullah Omar, streamed across the border into Pakistan after U.S.-led forces invaded in 2001.
Pakistan has also had a close relationship with the founder of the Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, that dates back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Haqqani network is the most feared militant group fighting in Afghanistan.
Many analysts believe Pakistan has continued to support the Taliban and the Haqqani network because they are seen as key allies in Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw, specifically to counter the influence of Pakistan's neighbor and archenemy, India. The outcome of any peace process in Afghanistan would likely have to address this concern.
Pakistan has denied accusations that militant leaders are based in the country and that it has maintained ties with them — a stance that could become tricky to maintain as the peace process progresses.
Pakistan has pledged to do whatever Afghanistan asks to help facilitate the peace process. But the main thing that Karzai has sought is for Islamabad to facilitate access to the same militant leaders who Pakistan denies are using its territory.
There are also likely limits to what Pakistan can achieve since there is reportedly significant distrust of Islamabad among the Taliban.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said recently that Karzai's visit would focus on figuring out exactly what role Islamabad would play in the negotiations.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have long had a troubled relationship, one that grew more difficult last year when a suicide bomber assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul. He had been serving as Afghanistan's envoy to Taliban peace talks, and Afghan officials accused Pakistan of playing a role in the killing — allegations it denied.
The peace process could also be complicated by strained ties between Pakistan and the United States, especially following American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year.
Pakistan retaliated by closing its border to NATO supplies meant for troops in Afghanistan. It also kicked the U.S. out of a base in Baluchistan used by American drones, but the move its not expected to significantly impact the program.
A pair of missiles strikes killed nine people in North Waziristan on Thursday, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
In the first strike, a U.S. drone fired two missiles at a house in Spalga village, killing six people. Later in the day, missiles hit a vehicle in Khaisur village, killing three militants.
The U.S. does not publicly discuss details of the covert CIA-run drone program in Pakistan.
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali, Pakistan, Matiullah Achakzai in Chaman, Pakistan, and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.