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Karzai and Taliban

February 17, 2012

ALL the familiar noises are emerging from the Pak-Afghan talks in Islamabad. President Karzai termed Afghanistan and Pakistan "twin brothers" who should be working together towards stability in both countries. Pakistan reiterated its support for a stable Afghanistan and an "Afghan-led" and "Afghan-owned" peace process. But the reality also remained the same: Kabul still perceives Pakistan as doing little to truly enable the Afghans to engage with the Taliban leadership, much of which is based here. Mr Karzai's recent claims of being in dialogue with the Taliban seem more designed for public perception than based in reality, and his request for Pakistani help indicate a desperate attempt to open up his own links with the group outside of, or at least in addition to, the Qatar process being run by the Americans. Demanding Pakistani involvement is not a popular step for him at home, and Mr Karzai likely took it out of an acceptance of Pakistan's links and frustration at his own failure to strengthen his government in Afghanistan. But Islamabad offered the usual statements in response, refraining from making any commitments to deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

Even from the point of view of self-interest, this is a lost opportunity. Because the relationship with the US is so broken, Pakistan remains shut out of the Qatar process and boycotted the Bonn conference. In Mr Karzai's desperation for help setting up dialogue with the Taliban, it has an opportunity to weaken the international perception that it is an impediment to peace, and establish its involvement in a peace process whose outcome will have direct implications for the country. One undesirable consequence of Pakistan's reluctance to cooperate became obvious this week; Mr Karzai also sought the help of Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam leaders with Taliban links, in effect making a statement, perhaps to apply pressure on the Pakistani establishment, that he now has to seek out other partners who can deliver the goods. In the Afghan president's needs and efforts lies an opportunity for Pakistan - if it can rethink its old policy of jealously guarding its relationship with the Taliban.