Pakistan’s new government is reaching out to the United States, India and Afghanistan to try to improve long tense relations. A week after Washington and Islamabad announced plans to resume high-level security talks, Pakistan’s foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz said Islamabad welcomes more Indian investment in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has long been accused of thwarting Indian diplomacy and investment in Afghanistan as part of a strategy to limit New Delhi’s influence there. Officials in India have alleged militant attacks on their diplomatic missions in the country are plotted across the border in Pakistan.
But in an interview with VOA, Aziz said Islamabad is welcoming India’s outreach because it will help ensure a stable and united Afghanistan.
“India’s assistance to Afghanistan in the past to help build their infrastructure and some training remains important and I hope they will continue to do that,” said Aziz.
Such statements are rare for senior Pakistani leaders, and many in both governments remain skeptical that Islamabad is open to increased Indian engagement with Kabul.
But Aziz said his country has a vested interest in seeing a successful Afghanistan, and countries in the region should work together to support that goal.
Hopes pinned on talks
He said that Pakistan and the United States also have agreed the political reconciliation process in Afghanistan should be led and owned by Afghans themselves - without outside interference.
“But the important thing is for different Afghan groups, particularly the High Peace Council and the Taliban and some other stakeholders to talk to each other, whether they talk in Doha, or Dubai or Istanbul or anywhere, that is not so material. The Doha process actually has given the wrong connotation. Actually, the reconciliation process should go on and that is our hope now but obviously Afghanistan is getting ready for an election next April and that will obviously create some hiccups and some lull in the activity. But some contacts [with the Taliban], I think, have started in the last few weeks and let us hope they will continue,” said Aziz.
The long-stalled Afghan peace talks briefly appeared to be on track in June, when the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, to talk with U.S. and Afghan negotiators. But the initiative quickly fell apart after Afghan President Hamid Karzai learned insurgents were using the country’s former name and flag on their office.
Feeling betrayed, the Afghan leader abandoned talks and accused the United States of granting legitimacy to the insurgency.
Karzai as sticking point for Taliban
Sartaj Aziz suggested a major obstacle in the reconciliation process is the Taliban’s refusal to accept President Karzai and the changes to the Afghan constitution made under his leadership. He said all sides need to show more flexibility.
“Obviously, you see [the] Taliban have been saying that this government, this constitution is imposed by foreign powers and is not indigenous. But I think many of them realize that once they are part of the negotiating process, then they will be able to make changes if they require. So in that sense, there are some [insurgent] groups which want to talk and take part, others of course do not believe in that,” said Pakistan’s foreign policy chief.
Aziz said that Karzai is expected to visit Islamabad later this month and Pakistan is keen to find out how much flexibility the Afghan leader will be ready to show to jumpstart the peace process.
Key role for Pakistan
This week, Afghanistan’s foreign ministry said Pakistan has a key role to play in supporting the Afghan peace process, calling on Pakistani authorities to facilitate direct contacts with Taliban leaders, including those detained in Pakistan’s prisons.
Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a senior member of the Afghan Peace Council, told VOA he is optimistic that peace talks can resume, with Pakistan’s help. At the same time Qasimyar urged the insurgents to take part in Afghanistan’s elections next April.
“Time is pressing, that is for sure. But our endeavor, our effort will be continuing and may be gaining more momentum and strength towards bringing a peace. This election is a good chance, a historical opportunity for our all opponents to join the democratic process, the election process to come and have candidates for the presidency, and I am sure if they get the required vote, everybody will obey that.”
On Tuesday, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar rejected participating in the polls, calling the election "a waste of time." The militants also have stated in recent days they will not compromise on the flag and the name of their political office in Doha, further casting doubt on an Afghan peace effort still struggling to get started.
Click here for a transcript of Ayaz Gul’s full interview with Sartaj Aziz.