Pakistani security officials want role in Afghan talks

By David Nakamura
Monday, October 25, 2010; A13

ISLAMABAD - Pakistani security officials are expressing frustration that they have not been included in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent overtures to the Taliban, warning that a sustainable peace agreement will not be possible without their support.

In interviews, army and intelligence officers here also said they were skeptical of assertions by U.S. military leaders that coalition forces have turned the corner in their fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and that reconciliation talks are at hand, calling that narrative a "desperate" attempt to convince the American public that there is progress in the war.

"The American government is hard-pressed to show the American public that they have achieved something" ahead of the midterm congressional elections next week and President Obama's war review in December, said a senior Pakistani intelligence official. "All this is primarily about that."

Another high-ranking security official cautioned that the Americans must be careful that their "desperate push to produce results . . . does not become strategically unacceptable to our side. We cannot be insignificant in this war. If somebody is trying to keep us out and is striving for sustainable peace, good luck to them."

Both of the Pakistani officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. U.S. diplomats said they are not sidelining Pakistan but stressed that the Afghan government must lead the peace process without interference.

"NATO helps set the conditions that can support an Afghan-led reconciliation process," said Alberto Rodriguez, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. "The U.S. believes that Pakistan's role is to work in concert with the international community and support the Afghan government as it charts a course for the future."

Pakistan is thought to have significant leverage over key insurgent factions. Pakistan heavily supported the Taliban during the group's five years in power in Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and insurgent leaders now shelter in Pakistan. Elements of Pakistan's military and intelligence services have allegedly maintained assistance to the Taliban, envisioning the group as a tool for exerting influence after U.S. and other foreign forces have left Afghanistan. Pakistan denies this allegation and says it is fully engaged in fighting the Taliban, a faction of which has declared war on Pakistan.

The views expressed by Pakistani officials in recent days are in stark contrast to the increasingly upbeat assessments that U.S. officials have offered about the war. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said last week that a major operation in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar is progressing faster than expected, and U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry said there have been "positive trends emerging."

Meanwhile, U.S. and Afghan officials have said Karzai aides are in the early stages of talking to the Taliban about potential peace negotiations, with NATO forces providing some insurgent leaders safe passage to meetings in Kabul.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggested Sunday that reports of peace talks with the Taliban are overblown, telling CNN that "there's a lot more in the press about this than there is in reality at this point." But he acknowledged that "what we've got here is an increasing number of Taliban at high levels saying, 'Hey, we want to talk.' "

U.S. authorities consider Pakistan a critical partner in fighting the insurgency in the mountainous border regions. Yet dealing with the country's army and spy agency can be tricky. In February, Pakistani intelligence forces arrested Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's second-ranking commander, who had purportedly been pursuing secret talks with the Karzai administration. Critics charged that Pakistan detained Baradar to block the talks and to assert its role in any negotiations, but Pakistan has said he was picked up at the request of the CIA. Baradar remains in custody, a Pakistani official said last week.

This time around, Pakistani army and intelligence officials said the Americans have not told them which Taliban leaders have been involved in meetings with the Afghans. And media reports that the Taliban's top leader, Mohammad Omar, will be excluded from any reconciliation talks have added to the Pakistanis' frustration. American officials consider Omar to be closely tied to Pakistan's main intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.

"We have been hearing that some Taliban commanders have been meeting the officials in Kabul without the consent of Mullah Omar," said a brigadier general in the ISI, using an Islamic honorific with Omar's name. "If that's true, we believe it would be a fatal mistake, because the Taliban supreme commander still holds sway over the ranks of the Taliban and no one could defy him."

Pakistani officials also criticized Karzai's appointment of a High Peace Council, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik from northern Afghanistan. The officials said the council does not include enough Pashtuns from the south, where the Taliban has its roots. Several Pakistan security officials stressed that Karzai, who is a Pashtun, must ensure equitable representation for the Pashtuns in all aspects of government and the military before any peace talks can become serious.

Ashraf Ali, a former journalist who runs a Pakistani think tank devoted to studying Pakistan's tribal areas, said Rabbani is detested among the Taliban.

"He is not Pashtun. He has been at odds with the Taliban forever," Ali said.

Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former Pakistani interior minister, attended a series of talks this month between Afghan and Pakistani leaders in Abu Dhabi, where they discussed a range of topics, including dealing with the Taliban. He said the Taliban is not losing resolve in the face of an accelerated NATO campaign.

"The impression in the Taliban circles is that since now the Americans want to leave, what is the point in talking to them?" Sherpao said. "This is a point of time where they haven't lost anything and in fact morale is higher."

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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