Angry Karzai confronts Pakistan's leaders over Taliban

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2012 

ISLAMABAD — An angry Afghan President Hamid Karzai confronted the Pakistani leadership Thursday, demanding that it produce Taliban officials for peace talks and underscoring the distrust between Kabul and Islamabad, which stands in the way of a deal to end the decade-long Afghan conflict.

As Karzai's frustration with Pakistan, which he accuses of harboring the Taliban, boiled over, the mercurial Afghan leader's language and tone flared to such an extent that the Pakistani prime minister halted a key meeting of the full delegations of the two countries, according to officials on both sides, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

After a break, top officials reconvened for a smaller meeting, including Karzai, a rocky start to his two-day visit to Islamabad.

The nascent Afghan peace talks depend on the neighbors being able to cooperate, but Karzai has long demanded that Pakistan bring the leadership of the Taliban to the negotiating table, including their chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

According to one official who was privy to the discussions Thursday, Karzai bluntly demanded that Pakistan produce Taliban leaders to negotiate with him during his visit, an aggressive stance that shocked the Pakistani side.

The Afghan side's main meeting, which went on for around three hours, was with the combined Pakistani civilian and military leadership. The Pakistani prime minister, foreign minister, army chief and head of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency were present.

At one point, apparently directing his remarks to Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, Karzai asked: "Would you be willing to stop girls studying in schools and university in Pakistan?"

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, imposed an extremist interpretation of Islam, stopping girls' education and banning women from working. Kabul and its Western allies believe that Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders have an officially sanctioned haven in Pakistan, giving Islamabad decisive leverage over any negotiations.

Islamabad has denied those charges, and Khar, speaking to a small group of reporters after the meetings, called the accusations "ridiculous."

"We don't have Mullah Omar to bring," Khar said. "That's the crazy perception about Pakistan."

She described the discussions with the Afghan delegation as "hard" and "serious," declining to go into details. Pakistan has said it will back Kabul's peace efforts but has never spelled out what it's capable of delivering. Conversely, Pakistan says that it's unclear what Karzai is demanding of it.

"We told them that you need to clarify what it is that you want," Khar said. "We need to understand each other much better."

However, she added,

"We will not block any process that works towards reconciliation."

Karzai reportedly resents Pakistan and the United States deeply for what he sees as his government's marginalization in the nascent peace negotiations, despite both countries' repeated assertions that the process should be "Afghan-led." The most recent slight was a U.S.-backed effort to get the Taliban to open a liaison office in the Gulf state of Qatar to help kick-start talks, an initiative that Kabul felt excluded from.

Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan is only just recovering from accusations last year that the ISI was behind the assassination of Kabul's top envoy to the Taliban, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Islamabad angrily denied the charge.

Ahead of the Karzai visit, the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad, Umer Daudzai, a key adviser to the president, told a Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune, "President Hamid Karzai will expect Pakistan to facilitate contacts and dialogue with Taliban."

Before setting off for Pakistan, Karzai said he had hopes of Pakistani assistance but hadn't felt any concrete help.

"Pakistan's cooperation would make the whole matter easier for us, for the Taliban and for the United States," he told The Wall Street Journal. "Therefore, we have been seeking Pakistani assistance in the peace talks for Afghanistan for quite some time."

Pakistani officials say the country's policy toward Afghanistan is run jointly by its civilian and military leadership and that it favors no Afghan side in the conflict. However, most independent analysts think that Pakistan's armed forces, especially the ISI, control its Afghan strategy, which continues to rely on the Taliban and its allied Haqqani network as a proxy for Pakistan — or least as a hedge against its enemies, such as India, gaining influence in Afghanistan.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.

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