ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A joint Afghanistan-Pakistan peace commission met for the first time Saturday, an initiative to try to settle the near-decade-long insurgency in Afghanistan. But analysts are skeptical of results from the unwieldy body, and the process is further undermined by Washington's opaque position on negotiations.
The centerpiece of President Hamid Karzai's two-day visit to Islamabad, which ended Saturday, was the first meeting of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Commission for Reconciliation and Peace in Afghanistan, a bilateral body trumpeted by both sides as a major step toward stabilizing Afghanistan. Washington says it supports the bilateral initiative.
However, the Taliban already have rejected Karzai's High Peace Council, which preceded this bilateral forum, while there appears little incentive for Pakistan to use its leverage over the leaders of the Afghan insurgency. Also uncertain is whether the U.S. wants to fight the Taliban or make peace with it, while Islamabad fears that without the pressure from the insurgents, elements hostile to Pakistan will ascend to power in Kabul.
The leadership of the Taliban and its ally, the Haqqani network, are believed by Kabul and Washington to be in Pakistan, giving Islamabad potentially decisive sway over the insurgent top command. Pakistani officials are receiving mixed messages from Washington, with a demand to kill or capture Taliban leader Mullah Omar, while at the same time American officials are engaging in talks with Omar's envoys.
Karzai's trip to Islamabad coincided with a visit by CIA Director Leon Panetta, who is thought to have pressed the Pakistani military to eliminate the Afghan insurgents on its soil, specifically Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the military commander of the Haqqani network. Reports said that Panetta confronted the Pakistan military with evidence that it continues to protect elements of the Afghan insurgency.
Pakistan has forced a drastic reduction in U.S. military personnel present in the country, against loud protests from Washington.
"It is inconceivable for Mullah Omar to enter into talks in the current circumstances," said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul. "There are 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. It is run by a cabinet composed of foreign nationals. His own people would lynch him.
"As long as they stick to cliches like (the Taliban having to) accept the Afghan parliament and constitution, there will be no progress," Mohmand said.
The U.S. has stated that 2014 will be the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, but Washington is negotiating a "strategic partnership" that will keep a smaller number of American soldiers in the country beyond that date.
Mohmand said that while the leadership of the Taliban remained on United Nations blacklists, its members are still in prison in Afghanistan, and American troops plan to remain in the country indefinitely, then meaningful negotiations were unlikely. He also said that the Afghanistan-Pakistan joint commission contained high-ranking officials who could not undertake covert talks with the Taliban.
The Pakistan-Afghanistan peace commission includes the foreign ministers, military and intelligence chiefs from the two countries. It also includes the head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former warlord who is an avowed enemy of the Taliban.
Some experts said that the establishment of the joint commission was a significant step forward.
"It's the beginning of a process," said Simbal Khan, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, a government-funded research organization in Islamabad. "Some really serious issues are being discussed."
Khan added, however, that the process was being hobbled by the "confusion and split in D.C." between a State Department that wanted to open talks with the Taliban and a Pentagon that was determined to only fight the insurgents.
News emerged recently about talks between U.S. diplomats and Tayyab Agha, said to be a representative of Mullah Omar, taking place in Qatar and Germany. However, it remains unclear whether Agha was acting with the authority of Mullah Omar and whether the exchange amounted to a move toward substantive peace talks. Some believe that such contacts are exaggerated by the U.S. in an attempt to divide the Taliban.
Washington and Kabul accuse Islamabad of supporting the Afghan insurgency, a charge it denies. However, it is widely believed that Pakistan sees the Taliban and Haqqani as a hedge in Afghanistan against what it would see as an anti-Pakistan regime coming to power in Kabul.
"Our aim is to support the peace process which is Afghan-led and it is (an) Afghan process for reconciliation," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said at a joint news conference Saturday with Karzai in Islamabad. "It is in the interest of Pakistan to have a stable, peaceful, prosperous, independent and sovereign Afghanistan."
"Things have gone beyond tolerance and they are deeply hurting both nations' security," said Karzai. "The facts are so bare and the wound is so clear and hurting that it requires both of us to work diligently and extremely aggressively and effectively to curb terrorism and radicalism in this region."
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