Karzai Tells Americans: don’t talk to Taliban ‘On our behalf’

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ISLAMABAD: Afghan President Hamid Karzai may have struggled in Pakistan to get the desired support for reconciliation with the Taliban, but his trip revealed that he was not on the same page with the Americans about their peace efforts despite having endorsed the establishment of group’s office in Qatar.

“Americans cannot negotiate on our behalf with the Taliban and with us on behalf of the Taliban,” President Karzai, who was visibly uneasy with the Qatar initiative, told a group of journalists.

He was quick to clarify his government’s withdrawal of objection to the Taliban setting up their liaison office. “We only and only agreed to the establishment of office of the Taliban in Qatar. … Venue of talks, actual talks between us and Taliban, should be something we decide. Our preference is Saudi Arabia or Turkey.”

Mr Karzai’s statement and what he portrayed as “intellectually candid” discussion with the Pakistani delegation at the bilateral meeting (that was seen by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar as “hard talk”) reflect a serious disconnect between the stakeholders in the Afghan peace process and growing frustration in Kabul about not being meaningfully involved by the US in the process and Pakistan supposedly not delivering the Taliban leaders for peace talks. The Taliban, meanwhile, haven’t unambiguously indicated their willingness to participate in the peace process.

Apparently the scenario looks confusing and it’s unclear how the process would go ahead despite the excitement about Qatar office.

President Karzai’s vision of an Afghan led reconciliation is one in which his government and the Taliban sit face to face and “talk in an environment of clear and absolute transparency where the entire Afghan nation can see the process unfolding and where Afghanistan can have certain conditions”.

But, at the same time he sees a “negotiation table on which US and Pakistan are also present” alongside the Taliban and his government.

Pakistan has all along held that it would support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process. And the same sense came out from the trilateral summit where presidents of Pakistan and Iran while reiterating their support for reconciliation underscored that “any initiative in this regard must have authentic Afghan ownership”.

The question that drove most of the onlookers hazy was that what is the problem with Pakistan when Karzai is talking about an Afghan-owned process in which he is ready to guarantee a role for it.

Foreign Minister Hina Khar had earlier dismissed Afghanistan’s expectations of delivering top Taliban leadership for talks as ridiculous and unrealistic. Pakistan has always rejected the claim that Mullah Omar or other senior insurgency leaders are based in its territory.

A senior foreign ministry official, speaking on the background with Dawn, provided an insight into Pakistan’s approach towards the reconciliation process.

“Our commitment is for the process, it is for Afghanistan, but definitely not for an individual per se,” the official said and added that President Karzai’s personal ambitions can become problem.

He said that Karzai was striving to remain relevant to the process through his statements and actions.

It appears that Pakistan has its eyes fixed on post-2014 situation whereby Nato would, as per its commitment, have completed its drawdown and an unclear future for Mr Karzai, who wouldn’t be able to run for another term after completing two tenures.

Under this emerging setting Mr Karzai has expanded his contacts beyond the government in Islamabad and has engaged with political and religious leaders, who he thinks could be helpful to him.

Starting with meetings with Jamaat-i-Islami, JUI-F and PML-N after his arrival, the Afghan president stayed for an extra day after the conclusion of the trilateral summit and met with JUI-S chief and Taliban’s ‘spiritual leader’ Maulana Samiul Haq, PML-Q leaders Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Mushahid Hussain, ANP delegation led by Haji Adeel, PPP-S leader Aftab Sherpao and PkMAP chief Mehmood Khan Achakzai.

The common strand in all these meetings was a plea for support to the reconciliation efforts and stopping Taliban insurgents from using Pakistani soil for attacks against Afghanistan.

“He asked us to assist him in his peace efforts and emphasised that forces creating problems should be controlled,” ANP’s Haji Adeel said after the meeting.

Maulana Samiul Haq, from whose seminary most of the Taliban leaders have graduated, said Mr Karzai asked him to mediate. He said he asked him to put up concrete plan and serious agenda for peace.

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