Pakistan calls on Taliban to hold peace talks

February 24, 2012
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan made its first public appeal Friday for the Taliban to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government, a potentially significant move given Islamabad's perceived influence over the militants.
The Pakistani prime minister's call was welcomed by Afghanistan and will likely be by the United States as well. Both countries have long demanded Islamabad push Taliban leaders believed to be based in Pakistan, including chief Mullah Omar, to the negotiating table.
But it's unclear just how much sway Pakistan has over the militants and what steps the country's intelligence agency, which is closest to the Taliban, is prepared to take to move the peace process forward.
"It is now time to turn a new leaf and open a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan," said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. "In this spirit, I would like to appeal to the Taliban leadership as well as to all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-i-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace."
Hizb-i-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord whose ties to Pakistan date back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi welcomed Gilani's statement, calling it positive first step.
"The second step is of course to move forward, to facilitate meetings and talks between the Afghan government and the armed opposition," said Faizi.
There are signs that momentum for peace talks has been growing, especially with the Taliban's move to set up a political office in Qatar. But the group has said it would prefer to negotiate with the United States, which has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than the Afghan government.
This sentiment has reportedly triggered concern both in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the two countries could be sidelined in the peace talks.
The process has also been hobbled by distrust between Islamabad and Kabul. The Afghan government has long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary for the Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan in the 1990s with Islamabad's help.
Pakistan has denied the allegations, but it is widely believed to have retained ties with the group because it could be a key ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, especially in countering the influence of neighbor and archenemy India.
However, the Taliban have always been difficult to control and there is a significant amount of distrust of Pakistan within the group.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled to Islamabad last week to discuss the peace process with Pakistan's senior civilian and military officials. He later issued a public statement saying it was "crucial" for Pakistan to support talks with the Taliban.
The Pakistani prime minister's comments Friday were made in response to Karzai's statement.
"We are mindful of the importance of ensuring that the processes of peace and reconciliation succeed and thus contribute to the welfare and well-being of the Afghan people," said Gilani.
However, tension between the two countries spilled into public view during Karzai's recent visit.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said it would be "preposterous" for Afghanistan to expect Islamabad to deliver the Taliban's leader for talks.
Meanwhile, Karzai said there were "impediments" to the peace process that needed to be removed — a possible reference to Pakistan's lack of support to date.