ISLAMABAD (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai met on Saturday a Pakistan cleric with ties to Taliban insurgents fighting his government, the cleric and Afghan officials said. The cleric said Karzai asked for his help in bringing the militant movement's leadership into peace negotiations.
Speaking to the Associated Press, Maulana Samiul Haq said he told Karzai, who is in Pakistan on a trip to gain the country's cooperation in the nascent peace process, that he would help in the "noble cause" as long as it was clear what was wanted from the Taliban.
Hamed Elmi, deputy spokesman for Karzai's office, confirmed that the meeting took place.
An aide to another hardline Islamist cleric, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, also said that he met Saturday with the Afghan leader.
The meetings are first time an Afghan official has publicly contacted members of the Afghan Taliban's ideological — and some would say operational — support network in the neighboring country.
Karzai's trip reinforces his view of the centrality of Pakistan to the peace process. The meetings were a public sign of how far the Afghan president is willing to go to open contact with the leaders of the insurgency, who are widely believed to be based in Pakistan with some level of protection by the country's security forces.
Haq runs a large seminary where many of the insurgent leaders once studied and reportedly still provides recruits for the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. He is known in some circles as the "Father of the Taliban," but it's unclear how much sway he has currently with the movement.
On Thursday and Friday, Karzai met with Pakistan's civilian and military leaders to ask for their help in bringing the Taliban leadership to the table.
But there was little sign of progress, and Pakistan said it was "preposterous" to think Islamabad could deliver Taliban chief Mullah Omar.
Since its inception, the peace process has been beset by false hopes, mistrust and the competing interests of the main players: Afghanistan, the United States, the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan.
Afghan and Pakistani officials have complained about being sidelined in the peace process after the Taliban said they were opening an office in Qatar and were talking to the Americans. Publicly, the Afghan Taliban says it will not talk to Karzai, who they maintain is an illegitimate "puppet leader."
Karzai met Haq in an Islamabad hotel, not his seminary closer to the Afghan border where he regularly preaches the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan to thousands of students.
"Karzai asked me what should I do," Haq said. "I told him to take steps to gain some confidence of the Taliban. They do not trust you."
Haq said Karzai requested him to help establish some contact with the Taliban leadership.
"I told him that if have you take a clear position on what you can offer the Taliban, and what you want from the Taliban, God willing, I will contribute in this nobel cause."
After 10 years of war, the U.S. is publicly backing talks with the Taliban as a way to leave Afghanistan without it falling further into chaos. In the past, it has accused Pakistan of harboring Taliban fighters and urged Islamabad to attack them.
Pakistan has not done that, believing the Afghan Taliban are its allies against the influence of its regional enemy, India. It now believes its ties to the movement can be leveraged to ensure its interests are incorporated in any peace deal, chiefly that India doesn't gain a foothold in the country.