US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C/L) speaks with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (C) during a meeting in Islamabad on October 21, 2011. - AFP Photo

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has told the United States it is ready to facilitate its talks with the Taliban, but cannot become a guarantor to the negotiating process, a senior security official told Dawn on Saturday.

“Pakistan must not be blamed in case of failure of attempts (by US) for reconciliation with the Taliban as it does not spoon-feed them,” the official remarked.

“Contact with the Haqqani group is there, but they are not in our pocket,” was the message put across during a crucial meeting between the two sides on Friday.

The US delegation, headed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, included the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief David Petreaus while Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Chief of the Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the chief of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha represented Pakistan.

The official said the Taliban would themselves determine the propriety or otherwise of sitting at the negotiating table with the United States.

He said both sides felt that reconciliation was the way forward, but the devil lay in the detail. “The nitty-gritty of executing any prospective deal will test the acumen of all sides.”

He said Pakistan had raised certain issues with Hillary Clinton and both sides agreed that more work was needed.

He said Islamabad had made it clear to Washington that the “negotiating process must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”.

The Taliban must not be pressed to abandon Al Qaeda, lay down arms and declare respect for the Afghan constitution before the talks, the US was advised. “We know the Afghan culture, they will never lay down their arms,” he observed.

Pakistan had also spelt out its reservations to the US: it must not be forced into a strategy that the US itself is not going to follow on the other side of the border. The unambiguous message given to Washington was: an action against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan was not advisable as Pakistan cannot afford to open a new front at this stage.

According to the official, it was stressed that military operation should “complement the policy to work”, but in the “absence of a clear policy nothing would work”.

TENSE NOTE: The official said the talks began on a tense note when public pronouncements by top US officials against Pakistan, including the ‘ultimatum’ given to the country by Hillary Clinton herself during her stay in Kabul were challenged, but the temperature cooled down with the clarifications given by the US Secretary of State.

He said Pakistan had also voiced concern over the funding sustainability for the 400,000-strong Afghan National Army. He pointed out that 6-8 billion US dollars funding per year would be required for it which the weak Afghan economy cannot sustain.

Islamabad did not shy away from expressing its worst fears: the disruption of funding at any stage would mean disintegration of the Afghan force and spawning of well-trained and well-equipped splinters, leading to anarchy and posing a serious security threat to Pakistan.

Most of the concerns raised during the meeting were part of a document handed over to US President Barack Obama by Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani last year. It was for the first time that a written account of Pakistani establishment’s core concerns was given to the US in an unusual move.

A US official, during a briefing on Hillary Clinton’s visit, said she spoke about the importance of working together in order to eliminate safe havens both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and about the need to squeeze the Haqqani network.

“We (Pakistan) took exception to ‘squeezing the Haqqanis’,” the Pakistani official said. She softened her language, saying the US merely wanted to see Pakistan doing its best to stop the planning and execution of attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan.

In reply to a question about US contacts with the Haqqani network, the American official said the meeting took place in summer, disclosing that the ISI had suggested it and the Afghans also knew about it. “And our (US) message was very clear: the door is open to those who can meet these red lines. And those who want to keep fighting us, we are prepared for that fight”, the US official remarked.

He said details about negotiations had not been worked out. “But I think we need to start with ensuring we are all on the same page in terms of the framework.”