Pakistan's spy chief heads to US amid Afghan Taliban talks push

Pakistan's spy chief heads to US amid Afghan Taliban talks push
Pakistan Rangers soldier instructs a female student of Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw (NED) University during a counter-terrorism training demonstration at the Rangers Shooting & Saddle Club (RSSC) on the outskirts of Karachi, February 24, 2015.

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's powerful spy chief has left on an official trip to the United States, the military said Wednesday, with possible peace talks between Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban likely to be on the agenda.

It is Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar's first official visit to the US since taking charge of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency last year.

Pakistan has a civilian government but the military and ISI still wield great influence, particularly over policy towards neighbouring Afghanistan.

The trip comes days after President Barack Obama's new Pentagon chief said the US was seriously considering slowing the pace of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Pakistani support has been seen as crucial in recent moves to persuade the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government to end their 13-year insurgency.

The brief military statement announcing Akhtar's trip said only that he would "discuss issues related to intelligence" with his counterparts, whom it did not name.

But Pakistani security analyst Hasan Askari said the meetings would almost certainly touch on the issue of Taliban talks.

"The possibility of dialogue between the Afghan Taliban with Kabul and US, with special reference to any help that Pakistan could extend to facilitate the process, will figure prominently at the talks in Washington," Askari said.

He said the ISI chief would brief his US counterpart and other senior defence officials about the recent improvements in Islamabad's ties with Kabul, and the ongoing cooperation between the two countries on border control.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been frosty, fuelled by Kabul's bitterness at Islamabad's backing for the Taliban.

Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001.

Former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf recently admitted that support for the militants continued after President Hamid Karzai took power in Kabul.

But since President Ashraf Ghani took office in September, ties have improved vastly and Afghan leaders have repeatedly hailed Pakistani efforts to achieve reconciliation.

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah hinted earlier this week that talks with the insurgents could begin soon.

The moves towards talks have coincided with the US reconsidering the pace of its troop withdrawal.

The US-led NATO force ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in December but a residual force has stayed on for training and anti-terror operations.

Under the current plan, the 10,000-strong US force will drop to roughly 5,000 by the end of 2015 and then pull out altogether by the time Obama leaves office in two years.

But the Obama administration has already delayed the pace of the withdrawal, allowing 1,000 additional American forces to remain this year.

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