BRUSSELS, (Reuters) – Pakistan said on Friday it was willing to assist talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban because stability and peace in Afghanistan were in its own interests.
NATO and U.S. officials have also said they are ready to help Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, but Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the talks must be led by Afghanistan.
“They have to own it, they have to lead it. We are there to help,” Qureshi said in Brussels before talks on supporting economic development in Pakistan and fighting terrorism.
“We are there to facilitate. Because we want to see a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. It’s in Pakistan’s interest to have stability and peace in Afghanistan.”
A senior Pakistani official familiar with the contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban said they had been made possible by the lifting of U.S. opposition.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week Washington would do “whatever it takes” to get the peace process on track.
“I don’t know whether these contacts will succeed or not but the process has been set into motion,” the Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.
“It’s just the beginning and this in itself is a success because earlier there has been (U.S.) opposition to such contacts.”
Pakistan’s backing for talks is important. Although it is officially an ally in NATO’s campaign against Islamist militancy in Afghanistan, it has been accused of playing a double game by covertly supporting militants fighting there.
Islamabad was the main backer of the Taliban when it was in power in Afghanistan, and has been concerned by the influence that its nuclear-armed rival India has on the Kabul government.
U.S. AND NATO CAUTIOUS
U.S. and NATO leaders also caution that reconciliation is a complex process that may not happen quickly.
The disclosure by a senior NATO official on Wednesday that NATO has already facilitated contacts between Kabul and Taliban figures pointed to a bigger Western role than previously acknowledged as Kabul seeks a political resolution to the war.
The conflict is in its bloodiest phase since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, and more than 2,000 foreign troops have been killed since the fighting started, more than half of them in the last two years.
This has led to increased disillusionment with the conflict among Western nations contributing to the 150,000-strong NATO-led force.
The NATO official did not disclose any details about the help provided, but it has included safe passage for Taliban officials to Kabul.
Afghan and U.S. officials say a peace deal is still only a distant possibility, although the prospect is drawing increased attention before the United States starts withdrawing its nearly 100,000 troops from Afghanistan next July.
The U.S. and NATO officials said any reconciliation with the Taliban would require individuals to lay down their arms, cut links with terrorist groups and respect the
Afghan constitution — so called “red lines” designed to prevent a resurgence of the hardline Islamic group which ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001.
The Taliban have rejected such conditions and say they will not negotiate unless NATO troops leave Afghanistan. The Taliban deny any contacts with Kabul.
Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday dismissed such suggestions as propaganda.
But all the main parties involved — including Karzai’s government, insurgent groups, Washington and Islamabad — appear now to be seriously considering ways to reach a peace deal.
The preliminary discussions involve all three main insurgent groups — the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani network and the Hizb-ul-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — official sources said.