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US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, escorts Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, and Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Asfhaq Parvez Kayani, second from left, into a meeting on April 24, 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. —AFP/File Photo
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, escorts Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, and Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Asfhaq Parvez Kayani, second from left, into a meeting on April 24, 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. —AFP/File Photo

ISLAMABAD: As the United States makes a fresh attempt to start talks with the Afghan Taliban, competing visions in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan over what an eventual peace process might look like have emerged as one of the biggest hurdles.

Washington's hopes of negotiating with the insurgents to stabilise Afghanistan before most foreign troops leave by the end of 2014 had appeared to achieve a breakthrough last week when the Afghan Taliban opened an office in the Qatari capital Doha.

But the process was plunged into uncertainty when Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to send negotiators to the Gulf state after the Taliban raised a flag at its new premises, infuriating the Afghan government and prompting frantic attempts by US officials to resuscitate the planned dialogue.

While global attention has focused on the debacle in Doha, tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan - whose cooperation will be vital to any deal - have made the prospects of meaningful progress towards a settlement even less sure.

Since the Doha office was opened, Pakistani officials have made a series of comments suggesting that Karzai, who is due to step down at elections in April, 2014, is already irrelevant to what should be wide-ranging talks on Afghanistan's future. “His expiry date has come,” said a Pakistani government official, who is close to Pakistan's discussions with the US and other allies on Afghanistan. “The principle is a fundamental overhaul.”

Pakistan is in a position to influence the talks because its security forces backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and continue to serve as gatekeepers to insurgent commanders living on its territory.

While the government official's view does not reflect the public position of Pakistan, which has pledged to support the Afghan government's reconciliation drive on the basis of the existing Afghan constitution, it does provide a window into a strand of thinking within Islamabad's ruling establishment.

However, it is unusual for senior officials in the government to discuss Afghan policy in detail. The view that Karzai is a hindrance to talks was reflected in comments made to Reuters by three senior Pakistani officials occupying key positions in the foreign ministry and the army, which holds sway over relations with Afghanistan, in recent months. Karzai was installed as president after US-backed troops overthrew the Taliban government in 2001.

“Right now, Karzai is the biggest impediment to the peace process,” a top Pakistani Foreign Ministry official told Reuters in March. “In trying to look like a saviour, he is taking Afghanistan straight to hell.”

The thrust of Pakistan's criticism is that Karzai is too erratic to handle negotiations. Pakistani officials also argue that the most important protagonists for any peace process are the United States, the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance, a group of Afghan ex-warlords who fought the Taliban in the 1990s and now wield significant influence in Kabul.

“Hostile and evil”

Afghan officials and commentators suspect that Pakistan's frustration with Karzai stems from its desire to ensure that any future government in Kabul overturns the Afghan president's policy of cultivating warmer ties with India, Pakistan's nuclear rival. They also maintain that Pakistan has backed the Taliban through the 12 years of war against US-backed troops.

“We pleaded with Pakistan for peace, but Pakistan's policy and intentions towards Afghanistan have always been hostile and evil,” said Bashir Bezhan, a Kabul-based political analyst.

Washington praised Pakistan last week for helping to nudge insurgents towards the negotiating table in Doha, a contrast with acrimonious exchanges in previous years over allegations that Pakistan continued to covertly support the Taliban.

Against this backdrop of suspicions of Pakistan, an attack by the Taliban on the presidential palace in Kabul on Tuesday cast fresh doubt on whether Karzai would be prepared to participate in peace talks.

US President Barack Obama later called Karzai and the two agreed on the need for an Afghan-led peace process and to support the presence of the Taliban office in Doha, the White House said. But no date has been set for any negotiations.

Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry said Islamabad remained committed to supporting reconciliation in Afghanistan. “The official position of the government is to support an all inclusive, inter-Afghan dialogue,” he said.

Bonn two

The Pakistani government official who is close to Islamabad's thinking on Afghanistan, said one possible way forward at Doha would be far-reaching akin to the conference held in the German city of Bonn in December, 2001, which laid the foundations of Karzai's administration.

The key players would be the United States, the Taliban and members of the Northern Alliance, who Pakistan has been carefully courting for more than a year - but not Karzai. "It would be in a real sense a Bonn Two," the government official said. "Pakistan will have a ringside view...In the ring you'll have Americans and Afghans."

Such a view cuts a complete contrast with the position of Karzai's government, which believes the insurgents must lay down their arms, accept the constitution and find a role within the new Afghanistan that grew from the ashes of the Taliban theocracy toppled by US-led forces in 2001.

The "Bonn two" proposal may, however, just be wishful thinking within Pakistan's military, which might see such a conference as a chance to promote its preferred factions.

There would also seem to be little appetite among Karzai's Western allies to go back to the drawing board in Afghanistan at a time when NATO countries are seeking to scale back their engagement.

The Afghan government declined to comment on any "Bonn Two" kind of meeting. Washington has repeatedly said the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution and US officials said they were unaware of any proposal for a new Bonn-style conference. For now, the United States is sticking to its plan to coax Karzai's government and the Taliban together in Qatar, even as the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain unresolved.

"In the Pakistani military's eyes, Karzai is a lame duck, irrelevant," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist with Dawn newspaper. "The problem is that his is the only Afghan government there is."

Comments (5) Closed

Victor Jun 28, 2013 08:22pm

I don't think anything will come out of the Doha talks because every player is trying to push thru his own advantage, which incidentally, is detrimental to each other player. Taliban want nothing but their own total rule, once Americans depart. Karzai, knowing that Americans will not be there to protect him, wants nothing but Taliban under his thumb. The U.S., just wants to get the hell out of the mess they created 12 years ago. And Pakistan wants Karzai and his Indian friends gone, and Taliban installed, so they can control them, and it would be just like the good old days in 1997-99 when they had Taliban under their thumb, and the Army's "strategic depth" in Afghanistan kept in tact. Naturally, Karzai, the U.S., Northern Alliance, and also India, are not going to be happy about that. So everyone is working at cross purpose.

ashraf a jamal Jun 28, 2013 11:53pm

Shame on Army Chief, Pervez Kayani fail to support his fellow.

Arun Jun 30, 2013 02:57am

That Afghanistan will revert to the pre-2001 status seems inevitable. But what Pakistan may find in 2014 is that the Taliban also have roots within Pakistan, thank to the support extended to them within Pakistan since 2001. Before 2020, Pakistan will move more towards the Taliban version of Islam, resulting in Pakistan becoming more and more like Afghanistan. No foreign investment, no economy, just aid from the Saudi's on one hand, and the Americans on the other. That is what we are headed towards, just a simple extrapolation of what has happened in the last 15 years.

Mandeep Jun 30, 2013 06:19am

Pakistan needs to respect Afganistan's sovereign status. It should not dream of running Afganistan through its proxies and tell Afganistan how to run their foreign policy. It is never tired of complaining about India's hegemonic designs which is nothing but an expression of jealousy, but what it itself is doing is pure bullying. Thank God, Afganistan is the only neighbour of Pakistan which is weaker than it, otherwise these Pakistanis would have made entire region Afganistan.

Tahseen Khan Jun 30, 2013 09:17am

@Victor: " cross purpose" or not Pakistan should never accept Indian friendly government in Afghanistan. Knowing the evil plans and hate India has for Pakistan, it will be detramental for Pakistan.