ISTANBUL: Afghanistan and Pakistan have a chance at talks in Istanbul to end the blame game over a series of militant attacks that have deepened their mutual mistrust, officials from the Turkish host government said on Monday.
Presidents of the three countries meet on Tuesday as Afghanistan enters a critical phase in its transition, with the United States (US) planning to pull its combat troops out by the end of 2014, and some Western countries already withdrawing theirs.
Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have been plagued by regular bouts of recriminations during the decade-old Taliban insurgency, with Afghan officials publicly airing suspicions that Pakistani intelligence, Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), is supporting the Taliban and the Haqqani network, an insurgent group allied to the Taliban.
Noting a deteriorating regional environment, a Turkish official said: “Now is perhaps the time to try to reverse the course.”
“We sense that they have a genuine wish to talk to each other because they realise this trend is not helping either of them,” the official said before the summit of the three presidents, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, Pakistan’s Asif Zardari and their Turkish host Abdullah Gul.
There has been a flurry of speculation about drawing the Taliban and Haqqani group into negotiations to end the fighting in Afghanistan.
Underlining suspicions that Islamabad is backing the Taliban, Karzai has said he should be talking to Pakistan in any negotiations.
Significantly, Pakistan’s military chief General Ashfaq Kayani will meet his Afghan counterpart on the sidelines of, what will be, the sixth summit between the three leaders.
The tri-lateral meeting will be followed by a regional conference on Afghanistan to be attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna and their counterparts from France and Germany, among others.
Many Afghans believe Pakistan is supporting the Taliban in order to regain influence in Kabul once Western forces leave.
A war of words escalated after the assassination in Kabul on September 20 of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was heading a peace commission. Afghan officials believe the suicide attack was ordered by Taliban leaders who, they say, are based in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta and that the bomber was Pakistani.
The Haqqani group, which operates within Afghanistan, with a rear base in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, has been blamed for a string of high profile attacks including one on the US embassy in Kabul in September.
Pakistan has vehemently denied the allegations, and officials accuse Afghanistan of deflecting attention away from its own failures. They have also called on Afghanistan and US forces there to act decisively against anti-Pakistan militants operating from Afghan territory.
Pakistan’s discomfort became more acute when Karzai signed a strategic partnership with India earlier this month, stoking old Pakistani fears of encirclement by unfriendly neighbours on its western and eastern borders.
Turkey, a Muslim member of NATO, hopes both sides will speak frankly at the Istanbul meeting to overcome misunderstandings.
The hosts want to revive some spirit of cooperation with an agreement they hope will be signed in Istanbul.
“We are also hoping to have those two countries sign modest cooperation protocols,” the official said. Details had to be sorted out.
“But we hope to be able to get them into that state of mind,” he said.
The later conference, which will be attended by 14 countries from the region and 13 involved in helping Afghanistan, is also expected to agree on a document that will contain confidence building elements, he said.
No one should question Pakistan’s commitment on the war against terror: Zardari
President Zardari said no one should question Pakistan’s commitment on the war against terror as it has made greater contributions and sacrifices than any other country.
In an interview with the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet‚ published Monday‚ he said Pakistan had sacrificed over 36000 innocent men‚ women, children besides suffering direct economic loss of over $70 billion.
“We also lost our great leader Shaheed Benazir Bhutto,” he added.
On relations with the US, he said “Osama Bin Laden issue is history. Pakistan is looking forward to a new chapter of relations with the US.
“We should look forward into the future and ensure that the militant mindset is defeated. The sooner we stop public criticism, finger pointing at each other, coordinate our resources‚ it will better serve the cause of peace, stability and fight against militancy. Our ties should be based on respect for sovereignty and mutual trust.”
On Karzai’s comments that his country would side with Pakistan if attacked by any other country‚ Zardari said “we should talk about peace and not war. Democracy always favours dialogue over confrontation. Decades ago the world community got together in an unprecedented unity to defeat a rival ideology but abandoned the region leaving us at the mercy of those who are now killing our people. This is a historical fact and the international community owes it to Pakistan to support it in the fight against a militant mindset.”
On relations with Turkey‚ Zardari said “we are one nation living in two states.”
Under the present arrangement‚ visa is not required for diplomatic and official passports holders. “Our eventual goal is a visa free regime for all our citizens and also working to currency swap agreement with Turkey to enhance bilateral trade.”