ISLAMABAD, Aug 26: Afghan President Hamid Karzai extended on Monday his daylong trip to Pakistan by another day after Islamabad offered to help it in facilitating talks with the Taliban.

The extended round of talks will be held in Murree where, according to diplomatic source, the two sides will confer on “core and much harder issues” in the relationship — fighting terrorism and talking to “reconcilable Taliban”.

Mr Karzai, who is visiting Islamabad after almost 18 months and, more importantly, following a sharp dip in ties over the past few months, sought Pakistan’s support for the troubled reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

He looked cautiously optimistic as he went into talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

He told reporters he was “hopeful, but not sure” in view of his previous visits to Pakistan. But what was described by onlookers as “very positive atmospherics” at the talks with the Pakistani leadership, Mr Karzai’s confidence appears to have been restored. He immediately accepted Mr Sharif’s invitation for a working lunch in nearby Murree.

Sources on both sides confirmed that much of the time in the talks on Monday had been consumed by the economic agenda and the extended time would provide the two sides an opportunity to deliberate on thorny issues which have repeatedly affected relations.

A reflection of this was evident from statements made by the two leaders in front of television cameras after their talks. While Mr Sharif said “the central focus of this relationship has to be a strong trade and economic partnership” and listed a number of economic and connectivity projects, President Karzai immediately reminded him of the more pressing issues in the relationship.

“Afghanistan has also expressed willingness to engage with Pakistan in areas of culture and all other manners of cooperation, but for the two countries the primary concern is lack of security for their citizens and the continued menace of terrorism attacking both our populations, our governments, our soldiers and our security forces. It is this area that needs to have primary and focused attention by both governments and it is with hope on this that I have come to Pakistan,” the Afghan president emphasised. Mr Karzai expects the Pakistan government to release former Taliban number two Mullah Baradar, persuade the insurgent leadership to talk to the High Peace Council and host Taliban political office that is planned to be relocated from Doha after the botched opening in June.

Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of maintaining ties with the insurgent leadership, many of whose leaders are based here.

The longstanding mistrust between the two countries that got compounded by Kabul’s tirade against Islamabad and the former’s growing closeness with New Delhi is seen as the biggest obstruction in the way of any meaningful cooperation.

The Afghan president said he was in Pakistan “with the expectation that the government of Pakistan will facilitate and help in manners it can the peace process in Afghanistan and in providing opportunities or a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban movement”.

“We hope that with this, on top of our agenda, we can move forward in bringing peace and stability to both countries,” he added.

The Foreign Office saw in Mr Karzai’s visit and subsequent extension of his stay “the readiness on both sides to work together for the furtherance of shared objectives of peace, stability and prosperity in the region and beyond”.

PARLIAMENTARY TIES: A delegation of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Defence and Defence Production will visit Kabul on Sept 9 for talks with Afghan parliamentarians.

The committee’s chairman Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed termed President Karzai’s visit significant for bilateral relations as well as peace and stability in the region.

Mr Sayed, who also heads the Pakistan-China Institute, was speaking at a briefing on tripartite dialogue between think-tanks of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan held earlier this month.

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