Karzai lukewarm to Islamabad’s Taliban pitch

AFP-JIJI, AP

President Hamid Karzai on Monday gave a lukewarm response to Pakistan’s invitation to visit Islamabad, setting conditions for any high-level talks designed to mend increasingly frosty relations.

Pakistan is willing to help jump-start long-stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban to try to end the more than 12-year war in Afghanistan if the parties request Islamabad’s help, a leading Pakistani official said on Sunday.

Sartaj Aziz, a Pakistani special adviser on national security and foreign affairs, spoke during a one-day visit to Afghanistan aimed at mending relations between the two neighbors, inviting Karzai to Islamabad.

The new administration of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office last month after his party won historic elections, but relations between Kabul and Islamabad have been even frostier than normal.

Sharif has kept Pakistan’s foreign affairs portfolio under his own control but Aziz, who served as a minister in the 1990s, is effectively the foreign minister.

Ties have been strained over Kabul’s perception that Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban as well as trying to obstruct peace talks.

The United States has been trying to enlist Pakistan’s support to help coax the Taliban into peace negotiations with Afghanistan. Washington views Pakistan as a key player in the negotiations because of its longstanding relationship with the militant movement.

The Taliban opened a political office in the gulf state of Qatar in June, but then early this month shuttered the office, at least temporarily, after a dispute broke out over their use of the name and flag they had during their five-year rule.

A furious Karzai slammed it as an unofficial embassy for a Taliban government-in-exile. It is not clear when, or if, it will reopen.

Aziz said that Pakistan had helped persuade some Taliban factions to discuss peace in the past, and also had played a role in helping Taliban representatives travel to Qatar before those efforts stalled.

“In the future, to the extent we are requested, we can play the same role but at the appropriate time and in consultation with other interested parties,” Aziz said.

Despite the efforts at peace, violence has been rampant in Afghanistan in recent months as the insurgency tries to take advantage of the withdrawal of foreign troops to retake lost ground, especially in their southern heartland.

All foreign combat troops are to leave the country by the end of 2014.

On Monday, Karzai’s office said he had accepted the invitation “in principle.”

But he said a high-ranking delegation could visit Pakistan only when the agenda is specified, initial preparations have been made and a “serious and effective struggle against terrorism and the peace process are on the top of the agenda.”

Aziz is the most senior member of Pakistan’s new government to visit Afghanistan at a time when relations between Kabul and Islamabad have been worsening.

Last week Karim Khorram, Karzai’s chief of staff, claimed the Taliban office in Qatar was part of a plot to break up Afghanistan, orchestrated by either Pakistan or the United States.

Aziz denied perceptions held by many in Afghanistan that Pakistan controls the Taliban, saying only that “we have some contacts” with the militia.

The scheduled departure next year of around 100,000 U.S.-led foreign troops and Afghan presidential elections in April have lent renewed urgency to the quest for peace.