REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Criticizing Afghan leaders as not clearly defining what role Pakistan should have in nascent peace talks with Afghan insurgents, Pakistan’s foreign minister on Friday said any expectations her country could deliver the Taliban's leader to the negotiating table were “preposterous.”
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s remarks came after Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a trilateral summit in Islamabad.
At the top of Karzai’s agenda was securing a commitment that Pakistan would facilitate talks between Afghan officials and the Afghan Taliban leadership.
Pakistan is widely viewed as playing a crucial role to peace talks in Afghanistan, largely because top Afghan Taliban officials, including leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, are all believed to be based in Pakistan.
Both Washington and Kabul have consistently accused Pakistan, particularly its premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, of actively supporting Afghan insurgents and allowing them to enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border and in the southern city of Quetta.
“We are ready to look at anything, but if you have unrealistic — almost ridiculous — expectations, then you don’t have common ground to begin with,” Khar said at Zardari’s residence after the three presidents held a news conference there. Pointing to expectations that Pakistan could make Omar available for talks, Khar added, “If that’s the expectation then there’s no reality check. Then [such expectations] are not only unrealistic but preposterous.”
Khar’s remarks suggest Pakistan and Afghanistan remain far apart on the issue of peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. That lack of accord comes at a vital stage in the 10-year-conflict, when both U.S. and Afghan officials are struggling to build a foundation for fruitful talks with the insurgents.
In recent months, U.S. officials have been meeting with Taliban emissaries to discuss the establishment of a Taliban office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Karzai, meanwhile, told the Wall Street Journal this week that the U.S. and Afghan governments have begun secret talks with the Afghan Taliban insurgency. A Taliban spokesman denied Karzai’s claim that such talks had begun.
Though Pakistani leaders have repeatedly said they support the idea of resolving the conflict through peace talks, they also have stressed that those negotiations should be Afghan-led and not driven by a U.S. agenda. Khar said Pakistan remained unclear about “what degree of ownership the Afghan government has” of the negotiations process.
“We have said that for us, the major prerequisite is that the Afghan people determine what course of action they want to follow,” Khar said.
Efforts to negotiate with Afghan Taliban leaders are complicated by the belief in both Kabul and Washington that Pakistan’s intelligence community continues to support Afghan Taliban insurgents. During the news conference, Zardari denied any link between his country’s security community and Afghan insurgents.
“Let me deny this notion that any of our armed forces are directly or indirectly involved" with militants, Zardari said. “We cannot deny that maybe there are people among our population who are involved in this. But this is a world problem and a world issue that has been left to us to look after.”
Zardari also said Pakistan remained committed to plans to build a pipeline that would send Iranian natural gas to Pakistan — a project that Washington strenuously opposes because of its concerns about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials have warned that Pakistan could face sanctions if it goes ahead with the project.
Despite the warnings, Zardari said Pakistan’s relations with Iran “cannot be undermined by international pressure of any kind.”
For his part, Ahmadinejad used the news conference as a platform to lash out at the U.S. and other Western nations, saying they have “targeted our region for their domination and hegemony.
“In order to promote their goals and ambitions, they always seek to disseminate the seeds of division among all countries of the region,” the Iranian leader continued. “They always want to see us as [a] backwater and poor, and to be always dependent on them. ... We should deny others the opportunity to interfere in our affairs.”
Photo: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, center, is flanked by his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, and Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai during a trilateral summit in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday. Credit: T. Mughal / EPA