Uneasy neighbours: Sartaj Aziz mounts charm offensive to reset Kabul ties

Says Pakistan maintains contacts but doesn’t control the Taliban.

Tahir Khan/reuters July 21, 2013
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul welcomes Adviser to the PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz at the foreign affairs ministry in Kabul. PHOTO: AFP

KABUL/ ISLAMABAD: In a bid to improve its roller-coaster relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan on Sunday sought to clear President Hamid Karzai’s doubts over its efforts to revive a nascent peace process with the Taliban.

The visit came a day after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that Pakistan has not and would not support any insurgent or political group in Afghanistan. He also reiterated that his country would do all it could to restore peace in its strife-torn western neighbour.

On Sunday, the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs and national security, Sartaj Aziz, said that Islamabad wanted a reset on diplomacy with Kabul after a sharp deterioration triggered by botched efforts to aid US efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha.

“A peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan is in the vital interest of Pakistan,” Aziz said after meeting Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul. “Without peace and security in Afghanistan, peace and security in Pakistan cannot be ensured.”

Almost as soon as he was appointed foreign policy and national security adviser, Aziz found himself at the centre of a storm when Afghanistan’s foreign ministry accused him of having raised the idea of power-sharing between the government in Kabul and the Taliban to help end the 12-year-old Afghan conflict.

Karzai’s chief of staff Abdul Karim Khurram aired suspicions last week that the Taliban ‘political office’ in Doha was part of a plot by either the United States or Pakistan aimed at ‘breaking up Afghanistan’. “The main support of the Taliban is from Pakistan,” Khurram said.

On Sunday, Aziz said Pakistan had supported travel to Qatar by Taliban representatives at the request of the Afghan High Peace Council.

“We have some influence and contacts with (the Taliban in) Afghanistan. But we do not control them,” Aziz said. “It is for Afghans themselves to decide what system and what kind of post 2014 arrangement they would like to have.”

Aziz referred to the release of 26 Taliban detainees at the High Peace Council’s request and said Pakistan also facilitated their passage. “If requested again in future, we can play the same role but at an appropriate time and in consultation with other interested parties,” he added.

Asked about Afghan officials’ claim that he had floated the idea of ceding some provinces to the Taliban and about Islamabad’s quest for a federal system in Afghanistan, Aziz denied making any power-sharing suggestion.

“There is no point in our discussing one system or another because it is not for us, it is for the Afghans themselves to decide what system and what kind of post-2014 arrangements they would like to have,” he added.

Aziz reiterated Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, saying his country wanted an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and intra-Afghan process. “We will not initiate or impose any solution [on Afghanistan] ... We only will facilitate the dialogue”.

He referred to Saturday’s statement of Premier Nawaz that Islamabad would not interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Pakistan would also persuade all regional countries to adopt the same policy of non-interference and neutrality, Aziz said.

On his part, Rassoul said the Karzai administration hoped to have considerable progress and achievements with the new elected Pakistani government in cooperation in all areas.

“We are confident that Pakistan will cooperate in fighting against terrorism and extremism and the networks and systems supporting them, on the peace process, in the political, economic, and cultural arenas and in people-to-people relations,” Rassoul said.

He said Kabul also wanted to improve relationship with Islamabad because that demands “our shared objectives of peace, stability and prosperity can only be promoted with if we are closer if we have closer economic and trade ties.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2013.