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July 21, 2013

Pakistan Envoy Seeks to Ease Tensions with Afghanistan

by Ayaz Gul

Pakistan has pledged to support Afghan peace efforts using “some influence and contacts” it has with Taliban rebels. But during his day-long visit to Kabul on Sunday, Islamabad’s new foreign policy chief denied allegations Pakistan is seeking Afghanistan’s breakup or a power-sharing role for the Taliban after international forces leave the war-ravaged country.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on national security and foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, traveled to Kabul in a bid to ease bilateral tensions and renew efforts to start peace talks between Afghan and Taliban representatives.

Aziz spoke to reporters after meeting Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul.

“I have brought here a message of cordiality and goodwill from Pakistan. The new government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is deeply committed to strengthening Pakistan’s fraternal ties with the Afghan people. The main purpose of my visit is to convey a formal invitation from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to President Karzai to visit Pakistan," he said.

The senior Pakistani advisor's visit came just days after the Taliban closed its newly opened political office in the Gulf state of Qatar following objections from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. They established the facility as part of a U.S. plan to engage the Taliban in the Afghan peace and reconciliation process before most American and NATO forces leave the country by the end of next year.

President Karzai accused the United States and neighboring Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to set up a government-in-exile and refused to send his peace negotiators to Qatar.

The strong reaction grounded the talks before they could even begin. Afghan officials also alleged that the Taliban office was part of a plot by either the United States or Pakistan to break up Afghanistan on ethnic lines.

Washington rejected the allegations as “nonsense.”  Pakistani diplomat Aziz, during his visit to Kabul, also denied Islamabad was trying to impose its own solution to end the Afghan war.

“There is no point in our discussing one system and another because it is not for us - it is for Afghans themselves to decide what system and what kind of post-2014 arrangements they would like to have.  So, there is no question of our making any proposals or suggestions in that regard," he said.

Pakistan helped the Taliban to take power in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion ended their five-year rule in 2001. Afghan leaders suspect the Pakistani spy agency remains in contact with the Taliban insurgency in a bid to influence the peace efforts and promote the Islamist movement.

Aziz said that Pakistan facilitated travel of Taliban representatives to the Qatari capital of Doha at the request of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is tasked to promote the political reconciliation. At the council’s request, he said, Pakistan also released 26 Taliban detainees toward the end of last year and is willing to take such steps in future if asked.

“Obviously, we have some contacts with the Taliban because of the past but we don’t control them. So in future also if to the extent we are requested we can play the same role but at the appropriate time and in consultation with the other interested parties," he said.

Sartaj Aziz however, emphasized that it is for Afghans themselves to make the peace process successful.  Aziz said he hoped that President Karzai’s proposed visit to Islamabad will further help ease tensions and deepen political, economic as well as trade cooperation between the two neighboring countries.