Later in the day, Karzai said the two men discussed how to work together to fight terrorism and advance the peace process, “with the expectation that the government of Pakistan will facilitate and help” the process, primarily through its influence on the Taliban.
Karzai had also been expected to ask for the release of jailed Taliban leaders who might join in talks, especially Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was arrested in 2010 in a joint operation by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence teams.
But even though the visit was extended by one day and concluded with lunch in a breezy hilltop resort town overlooking Islamabad, the capital, Sharif and other Pakistani officials made no public offers to help restart talks with the Taliban or to release any Taliban prisoners.
As Karzai flew back to Kabul on Tuesday afternoon, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a bland statement saying that in cordial talks, “both sides had reaffirmed their commitment to deepen and broaden” bilateral relations and “agreed to work together for the promotion of peace and reconciliation” in Afghanistan. It did not mention the Taliban by name.
Efforts to hold peace talks with the insurgent group have stalled repeatedly. In June, U.S-backed plans to open a political office for the Taliban in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar collapsed when the group displayed its flag and title in the manner of an embassy, infuriating Karzai.
Analysts in Pakistan suggested that the Afghan leader had pinned unrealistic hopes on Sharif, who said recently that Pakistan needed to “think afresh” about Afghanistan and sent his senior security adviser to Kabul to invite Karzai to Islamabad. The bilateral relationship has been marred by mistrust and recrimination for years.
Karzai has often accused Pakistan of providing shelter and support for Islamist insurgents and of seeking to undermine Afghanistan’s stability. He has visited Pakistan at least 18 times as president since 2002 but has always failed to secure meaningful cooperation in fighting terrorism or reining in the Taliban.
Hina Rabbani Khar, a former Pakistani foreign minister, told a TV show Tuesday that Pakistan would help facilitate peace talks but that Karzai’s government “must also show its seriousness.” She suggested that some of Karzai’s expectations of Pakistan were impractical, such as hoping that it would suddenly release Baradar as a goodwill gesture.
“Pakistan shall play the role of facilitator for talks between the Afghan peace council” and the Taliban, Khar said. “That is realistic. But if Karzai thinks Mullah Baradar could return in the plane with him, that is dramatic and unrealistic.”
Analysts in Kabul said there were several reasons for Pakistan’s polite but insubstantial welcome. One is Karzai’s position as a lame-duck leader who is due to be replaced after elections in April. Another is Kabul’s close ties with India, Pakistan’s neighbor and longtime nuclear rival.
“This government is ending, and there is no benefit to Pakistan in making concessions to a government that will leave in a few months,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a body formed by Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban.
Analysts here also noted that despite Sharif’s desire to improve relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign and military policies are essentially controlled by the country’s army and intelligence services, which see Afghanistan as a threat and are especially suspicious of its growing alliance with India.
They also suggested that Pakistan does not control the Taliban anywhere near as much as Karzai thinks and cannot simply force it to negotiate, as Afghan officials are convinced. Most senior Taliban leaders live semi-covertly in Pakistan.
“I did not have high hopes for this trip. There was a mismatch of expectations,” said one Afghan analyst, Ahmad Saeedi. “The Pakistanis don’t have the power to make the Taliban come to the table overnight. They want to show they are sympathetic to Afghanistan’s problems, but they can’t go much further.”
Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.