Karzai holds Pakistan talks on Taliban peace quest

Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

ISLAMABAD - Visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks Monday with Pakistan's new prime minister, seeking help to open communication with the Taliban to end 12 years of war.

It is Karzai's first visit to Islamabad in 18 months and signals a desire by both countries to overcome distrust and hostility as 87,000 NATO combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan next year.

The visit began with an out-of-tune rendition of both national anthems by a Pakistani military band, before Karzai inspected an honour guard and swept into talks with Nawaz Sharif.

It is his first meeting with the new prime minister, who took office in June after winning elections.

Kabul announced that he would hold a separate meeting with Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain even though Hussain only formally takes office on September 9.

No mention was made of outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari, whose summit with Karzai in Britain in February briefly revived hopes of a rapprochement that quickly unravelled in a series of public rows.

Elements of the Pakistani state are widely accused of funding, controlling and sheltering the Taliban, but Islamabad says publicly it will do anything to stop the fighting in Afghanistan.

Karzai was furious when the Taliban opened a liaison office in Qatar in June. It was billed as a precursor to talks with US officials but perceived as a self-styled embassy for a government in waiting.

But he is now expected to ask Pakistan to help open a direct channel of communication with the militants.

Karzai insists that his government should take a central role in any peace talks, but the Taliban refuse to open contact with him or his appointed negotiators, dismissing him as a US puppet.

"The first item with Pakistan will be the peace negotiations," Karzai told a news conference in Kabul on Saturday.

He praised Sharif for having "all the right intentions for stability and peace", but conceded that previous visits had not achieved the goal of improving security in Afghanistan.

Karzai believes Taliban safe havens in Pakistan are the main cause of increased violence in his country.

"I will travel to Pakistan hoping to get a result out of it. I'm hopeful, but not sure, I will only go with hopes, and wish they materialise," he told reporters.

Afghan government peace negotiators accompanying Karzai have called for the release of the most senior Taliban figure detained in Pakistan, former deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Pakistan released 26 Taliban prisoners late last year, including the militants' former justice minister Nooruddin Turabi.

Afghan officials believe the releases can encourage former detainees to talk to the Kabul government, although observers say there is little evidence those hopes have been realised. Several prisoners are also understood to have returned to the battlefield.

There are also question marks over what Pakistan can deliver.

Analysts say Islamabad can encourage and provide logistical support for Taliban peace talks, but it does not have the power to force the insurgents to the negotiating table against their will.

"Peace and stability in Afghanistan are in Pakistan's vital interest," the Pakistani foreign ministry said Sunday.

But Pakistani officials have been tight-lipped about the prospect of further prisoner releases.

Analysts warn against expecting too much from the visit.

After the botched office opening in Doha, the Afghan Analysts Network think-tank says Kabul is turning back to Pakistan to get access to the Taliban leadership.

"It wants its own channel to the insurgents, independent from the US," wrote analyst Borhan Osman.

"Attempts to go through Pakistan are not new. Most similar moves have been unsuccessful in the end, though."

Last month Karzai's chief of staff Karim Khorram claimed the Taliban office in Doha was part of a plot to break up Afghanistan, orchestrated by either Pakistan or the United States.

Afghan General Sher Mohammad Karimi also alleged in July that Pakistan could end the Afghan war "in weeks" if it were serious about peace.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper sounded a note of caution on Monday, warning of complications in Afghanistan and Pakistan working more closely together.

Karzai is due to step down at presidential elections in April, Pakistan's new government is still grappling with policy and its powerful army is preparing to change its commander later this year.

"Hope for the best, but prepare for continuation of the status quo - that may be the best approach," Dawn said.