Afghanistan, Pakistan hold "hard" talks on Afghan peace

ISLAMABAD Fri Feb 17, 2012 6:14pm IST

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar speaks during a news conference in Kabul February 1, 2012. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/Files

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar speaks during a news conference in Kabul February 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani/Files

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - After two days of high-level talks, Afghanistan appears to have failed to gain more Pakistani support for its bid to advance its reconciliation process with Taliban insurgent.

Pakistan is seen as critical to efforts to reach a settlement to Afghanistan's conflict, now in its 11th year, and is believed to have influence over Afghan insurgent groups.

"The talks were hard. But sometimes you need to have hard talks," Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told reporters after the meetings between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leaders in Islamabad.

Before Karzai arrived in Pakistan, Afghan officials said he would press Pakistan to provide access to senior Afghan Taliban leaders belonging to the so-called Quetta Shura, named after the Pakistani city where it is said to be based.

They would be the decision-makers in any peace negotiations.

Pakistan has consistently denied giving sanctuary to insurgents and denies the existence of any Quetta Shura, or leadership council.

"We are willing to look at anything. But if you have unrealistic, almost ridiculous expectations, then you don't have sort of common ground to begin with," Khar said.

"Deliver Mullah Omar? If that is the expectation, then there's no reality check then. Then they're not only unrealistic, but preposterous," she added, referring to the Taliban leader.

But Afghans have long been suspicious that Pakistan uses militant groups like the Afghan Taliban as proxies in Afghanistan to counter the growing influence of rival India.

STRAINED TIES

Ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan were strained for months after the assassination in September of Afghan peace envoy and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Afghan officials blamed Pakistan's intelligence agency, allegations angrily denied by Islamabad.

Khar said after a recent trip to Kabul that a lot of the ill will between the neighbours had faded. Pakistan, she said, would encourage Afghan militant groups to pursue peace if asked by Kabul.

Karzai seemed cautiously optimistic on relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

"I'm glad to convey to you, brother, that the engagements that we have had recently -- unfortunately with incidences in between -- have been fruitful," he told a news conference after the talks.

"What we need now is to formulate a policy that is actionable and implementable."

An Afghan official said Karzai took a firm stand in the Islamabad talks, presenting Kabul's concerns "clearly".

The Afghan Taliban announced last month it would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting the group may be willing to engage in negotiations that could give it government positions or official control over much of its historical southern heartland.

While Afghanistan supports any talks that the Taliban may have with American officials in Qatar, it also wants countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to play a role so that the process is comprehensive, analysts say.

The United States also sees Pakistan as a key player in the Afghan reconciliation process. But strained ties mean Pakistani cooperation may not come easily.

(Additional reporting by Serena Chaudhry; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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