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Afghan leader ventures into Pakistan in search of elusive peace with insurgents

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday. (Press Information Department Handout via REUTERS)
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday. (Press Information Department Handout via REUTERS)
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been called many things by his critics at home — arrogant and impatient, isolated and out of touch with ordinary people. But he surely deserves points for diplomatic perseverance.

On Thursday, for the first time in three years, Ghani flew into Pakistan, a neighboring country he has denounced repeatedly as fomenting terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. Looking spry in a blue pinstriped suit, he beamed gamely after being greeted on the tarmac by a mid-level government commerce adviser.

He met first with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the two leaders agreed to open a “new chapter of friendship” in their governments’ long-contentious relations. Later he told a think-tank audience that it is “crucial” for his government to “normalize relations with Pakistan” and that the two nations should cooperate to end conflict and develop a prosperous region. 

“You become our partners in peace, and the rest of the agenda will fall into place,” he said. Both sides should “put an end to the vicious circle of past blame.” He returned to Kabul on Friday evening.

Ghani’s fence-mending foray came on the eve of the seventh round of peace talks Saturday between U.S. and Taliban officials in Qatar, aimed at settling the 18-year Afghan war. Since the talks began in September, Ghani’s government has been excluded because of Taliban opposition, and its efforts in April to arrange informal talks between Afghans and the insurgents were canceled amid disputes over the proposed size and makeup of the Kabul delegation.   

The U.S.-Taliban talks now appear to be coming closer to a partial agreement on the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday, said he hoped that a full peace deal could be reached by Sept. 1 — ahead of Afghanistan’s presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28. There are now about 14,000 U.S. forces in the country. 

It was not clear how and when the talks would broaden to include Afghan participation, but a Taliban spokesman said this week that once a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal is announced, the talks would “automatically enter the next stage” and that both can “move forward simultaneously.” Germany and Norway have been preparing to organize or host potential talks among Afghans. 

Ghani’s arrival in Pakistan followed an unusual visit here by about 50 Afghan politicians, including several of Ghani’s top rivals in his bid to seek a second five-year term. The visitors — some of them longtime critics who had never been to Pakistan — spent two days at a posh mountainside resort, where Pakistani officials offered assurances that they are keenly interested in a peaceful, stable Afghanistan. 

 The Afghan president’s visit, which he proposed several months ago, was notable because his previous attempt at rapprochement in mid-2016, when he led a delegation to Pakistan ahead of planned peace talks, was undercut by the stunning revelation that longtime Taliban leader Mohammad Omar was dead. 

After that, the peace process languished, and Ghani repeatedly accused Pakistan of protecting anti-Afghan militias, a charge that has also been made by U.S. officials. In January, he claimed that the “key to war is in Islamabad, Quetta and Rawalpindi” — three cities known respectively as Pakistan’s political capital, its exile center for Taliban leaders and its military headquarters. 

Even after the Trump administration launched U.S.-Taliban talks last fall, many Afghans remain convinced that Pakistan — which supported Taliban rule in the late 1990s — is a major obstacle to peace and seeks to keep Afghanistan weak and unstable. 

This week, Pakistan seemed determined to persuade Ghani, his opponents and other influential Afghans that their suspicions are wrong. At the resort, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the political delegation to seize “the new opportunity for peace” through U.S.-Taliban talks, and he denied that Pakistan seeks to control Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” and a foil against its neighboring rival, India. 

“No one in Pakistan subscribes to any notion of so-called ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan,” Qureshi said. “We must not let anyone resurrect this dead horse” to “sow seeds of misunderstanding” between the two countries. 

Some of the visitors responded in kind, especially Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, 71, a longtime fugitive militia leader with close ties to Pakistan. He returned to Afghanistan in 2017 at Ghani’s invitation but has since criticized his government and joined a loose formation of opposition groups. 

Hekmatyar, whose participation was highlighted in the Pakistani media, praised his hosts for their “sincere efforts” to promote peace. He said the “genuine demands” of the Taliban should be accepted and that all foreign troops should leave Afghanistan. 

Commentators here variously described the meeting as a “diplomatic coup” or a “political maneuver” by Pakistan, which has been internationally isolated because of its alleged harboring of anti-Afghan insurgents. It has also been upstaged in the Afghan peace process by both Russia and Qatar, which have hosted meetings, talks and conferences with Taliban leaders. 

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, said Pakistan “wants to strengthen its peace credentials” and broaden its Afghan contacts beyond the Taliban. With the meetings in Qatar and Russia, he said, “Pakistan may have felt it is being left behind and the role it has played for peace is not being recognized.”

Ghani, he said, came to Pakistan “because he has been moving toward isolation,” too. “He feels he has been left alone by the U.S., and he is looking for allies. He wants to put pressure on Washington so he will be kept in the peace process, and to do that he needs an important country like Pakistan at his side.”

While Ghani drew scant praise here, there were a few cautiously worded comments about the need for improved ties and peace talks. The Express Tribune newspaper, in an editorial Friday, said that “hammering out a sustainable power-sharing formula” in Afghanistan would be difficult, but that it is “necessary to encourage an intra-Afghan dialogue.”

A “hasty U.S. withdrawal,” the editors warned, could lead to another Afghan civil war or to political chaos, which would allow terrorist groups such as the Islamic State to “consolidate their position” in the region. 

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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