By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 7:51 PM
KABUL - Members of an Afghan peace council left Tuesday for an ice-breaking visit to Pakistan.
The 17-member delegation was set to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, whose jobs are in jeopardy because a key political party pulled out of the ruling coalition in parliament this week.
Afghan officials and council members say Pakistan's support for the reconciliation process in Afghanistan is critical because insurgent groups enjoy safe havens in the tribal regions across the border. Pakistan, in turn, accuses Afghanistan of harboring its enemies.
"The agenda of our visit is to create trust and remove misgivings between the two countries so we can cooperate in the peace process. This is not an easy task," said Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, a deputy leader of the peace council and former Taliban representative to the United Nations.
"Unfortunately, there is another crisis in Pakistan, and we don't know what will happen to the government," Mujahid said.
Since the peace council was formed by President Hamid Karzai last year, many U.S. and Afghan officials have expressed skepticism about whether it will have meaningful authority over negotiations with the Taliban or simply act as a rubber stamp for Karzai's decisions.
But the visit to Pakistan, as well as a series of recent meetings within Afghanistan, has suggested the politically and ethnically diverse group will serve as an internal fence-mending body, even if it does not make the most important decisions on how to move forward with peace talks.
Led by former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose political party and its armed wing were once the Taliban's fiercest adversaries, members of the peace council have traveled to several provinces to encourage their governors to reach out to insurgents, according to U.S. officials.
"So far, it's all a lot of glittery generalizations, but it's happening; there is some energy behind it," said one American official who works on the issue.
The 70-member council includes former militia leaders who waged a bloody civil war in the early 1990s that helped spawn the Taliban.
Referring to the militia commanders, the U.S. official said, "These are the guys who got us into this pickle. They should have some responsibility in getting us out."
Pro-Taliban figures and liberal technocrats also are on the council.
Afghan officials, who have long complained that Pakistan harbors the Taliban leadership, say Islamabad is in a strong position to broker a deal if it wishes to bring peace to the region.
Pakistan has said it wants to play a role in Afghanistan's negotiations with the Taliban but has been vague about what that would entail.
"Pakistan's prime minister has said peace in Afghanistan cannot happen without Pakistan's help," said Abdul Hamid Mobarez, a council member and former Afghan deputy culture minister. "Now the council members are going there to ask for their help in opening the way to peace talks."