Afghanistan peace talks may hinge on easing of U.S.-Pakistan tensions
|Toronto Star 06 Dec 2018 at 13:39|
ISLAMABADâA fresh effort by the Trump administration this week to seek Pakistanâs help in arranging Afghan peace talks has produced no signs of progress yet but suggests that the chill between the longtime security allies may be starting to thaw.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan met here Wednesday with the U.S. special representative for the Afghanistan peace process, Zalmay Khalilzad; Khanâs office later said the prime minister had assured his visitor that Pakistan had âalways wanted a peaceful end to the Afghan conflictâ and that âreconciliation is the only solution.â
Pakistanâs Prime Minister Imran Khanâs office said the prime minister had assured his visitor that Pakistan had âalways wanted a peaceful end to the Afghan conflictâ and that âreconciliation is the only solution.âÂ Â (Asad Zaidi / Bloomberg)
There was no public statement from U.S. officials on the meeting, and Khanâs words were carefully vague, making no mention of the U.S. request that Pakistan use its influence with the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan to help bring them to the negotiating table.
But there were numerous reports that a delegation of four Taliban officials from the groupâs political office in Qatar arrived here several days ago to hold meetings. Several Pakistani news outlets, citing unnamed Taliban officials, reported that the private visit was likely an effort to co-ordinate a response among insurgent leaders for future meetings with Khalilzad, who is expected to visit Qatar this month.
The senior Taliban leadership is widely believed to be based in Pakistan, whose government backed the former Taliban government in Kabul and whose security agencies reportedly maintain close but complicated relations with the insurgents. Five weeks ago, Pakistan released Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former top Taliban official, after he spent eight years in prison, in an apparent gesture of support for peace talks.
The Taliban has been publicly contemptuous of the Afghan governmentâs peace outreach and has repeatedly said it will negotiate only with U.S. officials. But it has continued to insist that if all foreign troops and bases are not removed from Afghanistan, it will continue fighting.
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Khalilzadâs arrival in Pakistan on Tuesday came just after Khan said he had received a letter from Trump, written in sincere and cordial language, asking for the prime ministerâs help in arranging peace talks. Its tone contrasted sharply with past actions and exchanges. Trump last year suspended $300 million (U.S.) in military aid to Pakistan, accusing it of failing to take sufficient action against Taliban militants operating from its side of the border with Afghanistan.
Last week, Trump publicly accused Pakistan of ânot doing a damn thingâ to help the United States despite huge amounts of American aid. Khan responded with an indignant tweet saying that the ârecord needs to be put straight on Mr. Trumpâs tirade against Pakistan,â which he said had suffered more than 75,000 casualties in the war on terrorism. The United States, he said, should âstop making Pakistan a scapegoatâ for its failure to win the war in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Pakistanâs top military spokesperson declared that after years of Pakistani forces targeting violent extremist groups, ânot a single militant organizationâ is operating or being protected inside Pakistan today.
The spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, told a group of foreign journalists that Pakistan strongly supports ending the Afghan conflict, in large part because it has had a destabilizing effect on Pakistan. He noted that Pakistan has been building a high fence along the 1,800-mile border with Afghanistan to disrupt the movement of militants.
âWe want peace to come ... An unstable Afghanistan is not good for anyone,â Ghafoor said, adding that Pakistanâs greatest worry is that U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan, potentially creating a vacuum and causing âchaosâ in the impoverished and ethnically divided nation.
Pakistani analysts and officials welcomed the change in tone from the White House, although some speculated that it stemmed from Trumpâs mounting desperation to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and his belated recognition that the United States needs Pakistanâs help to accomplish that.
âPerhaps this is a reality check,â Kkurshid Kasuri, a former foreign minister of Pakistan, said in an interview. âPresident Trumpâs letter clearly shows he is keen to bring the Afghan war to an end and that the Americans have realized that Pakistanâs role is very important.â
Some Pakistani officials criticized Khalilzad, saying he had been impatient and high-handed in his previous two visits here to promote the talks. They said they welcomed what appeared to be a fresh, more respectful approach by Washington.
Shireen Mazari, Pakistanâs federal minister for human rights and a longtime critic of U.S. policy in the region, tweeted Tuesday that she hoped Khalilzad would bring a âless arrogant and hostile mindsetâ during his latest visit to Islamabad. The U.S. special representative is scheduled to visit eight countries on his current mission, including Afghanistan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.