Pakistan Cautions Kabul On Taliban Peace Hopes

Published February 17, 2012 12:00PM (EST)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's foreign minister said Friday it would be "preposterous" for Afghanistan to expect Islamabad to deliver the Taliban's leader to the negotiating table, as talks between the two countries on the peace process ended with little sign of progress.

The apparent gridlock shows the difficulties inherent in the peace process, which the United States is strongly pushing as a way to end the 10-year-old Afghan war and allow it to withdraw most of its combat troops by 2014 without the country further descending into chaos.

Pakistan is seen as key to the process because Taliban chief Mullah Omar and other senior commanders are believed to be based in the country. Islamabad has close historical ties to the group but has always denied that the Taliban leadership is based within its borders. Analysts say Pakistan can either help the talks or act as a spoiler.

It's unclear whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked for access to Omar during his current visit to Islamabad, and he made no public mention of the cleric. But he has called on Pakistan in the past to facilitate contact with the insurgent group's leaders.

Leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran held a three-way summit in Islamabad over the past two days that focused on Taliban peace talks, including steps Pakistan could take to help the process, and other regional issues. The summit ended Friday.

However, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar indicated her government was still uncertain on exactly what Afghanistan wanted, saying "they have not conveyed that clarity to us."

Karzai also seemed to indicate the process going forward was uncertain.

"What we need now is to formulate a policy that is actionable and implementable, and actually act upon it," Karzai said at a press conference featuring Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khar's comments came as she spoke to reporters after the press conference.

The foreign minister cautioned against Kabul expecting too much in terms of Pakistan providing access to the Taliban's leaders.

"If you have unrealistic, almost ridiculous expectations, then you don't have common ground to begin with," said Khar.

Khar said that any expectation that Pakistan can deliver the Taliban's chief for talks is "not only unrealistic, but preposterous."

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.

Asked about reports that the most recent discussions between Karzai and Pakistani officials were confrontational, Khar said, "The talks were very, very useful, and if they are hard, that is fine."

"We need to have some hard talks," she said.

There have been some signs that momentum for Taliban peace talks has been growing.

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 process has also been riddled with rumor and uncertainty.

Karzai initially resisted the U.S.-backed move by the Taliban to set up a political office in Qatar because he felt the Afghan government had been sidelined and not kept fully appraised of the process of getting an office established. He said he preferred Saudi Arabia, and members of the Afghan government's peace council have said that while the political office might be in Qatar, actual talks could take place in Saudi Arabia or another location.

Tension between Pakistan and the U.S. has also complicated the process, especially following American airstrikes in November that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops at two Afghan border posts.

By Salon Staff

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