Afghan peace delegation heads for Pakistan talks
By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Members of an Afghan peace council will hold talks this week with leaders in Pakistan, a crucial player in any future Afghan peace settlement, in the latest attempt to resolve the drawn-out and costly war.
A delegation led by former president Burhanuddin Rabbani would hold talks this week with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and others to discuss peace efforts in Afghanistan, said Waheed Omer, chief spokesman for President Hamid Karzai.
Pakistan, long blamed for stoking the insurgency in Afghanistan to thwart rival India, is nevertheless seen as an important ally to the United States and other NATO members as they battle a worsening insurgency now in its tenth year.
Acceptance has grown at home and abroad that talks may be the route to peace in Afghanistan, with U.S. and NATO leaders also examining their long term-commitment to the war, which is at its deadliest since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.
Omer said the delegation from Karzai's High Peace Council wanted to seek help from Pakistan and keep its leaders abreast of developments.
"This trip is not about meeting members of the Taliban," Omer told a news conference in Kabul.
"As Pakistan has influence over the Afghan Taliban and anti-government elements who are Afghans, it can be productive in the peace process," he said.
Pakistan backed the Taliban until the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities. It says it has maintained some contacts but rejects accusations it backs the insurgency.
The United States has increased pressure on Pakistan to hunt down Islamist militants in a bid to turn around the war in Afghanistan, but those efforts have been complicated by a growing political crisis in Islamabad.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was scrambling to save his ruling coalition on Monday after a key partner withdrew.
At a summit in Lisbon in November, NATO leaders accepted Karzai's ambitious timeline for Afghan security forces to take over security responsibility by the end of 2014, part of his broader peace plan that includes talks with the Taliban.
While Afghan officials have been meeting Taliban and other insurgent leaders for at least two years, the momentum for talks grew last year after a series of media stories incorrectly said senior Taliban leaders had met Karzai's government.
No serious, high-level discussions about peace have been held between the Afghan government and the Taliban, U.S., NATO and Afghan officials have said, with contacts described as "talks about talks" or "networking.
Interest in talks also grew in the lead-up to U.S. President Barack Obama's review of his Afghan war strategy last month, which found U.S. and NATO forces were making headway against the Taliban and al Qaeda but serious challenges remain.
Karzai established the peace council in October. His broader peace plan includes reintegrating Taliban "foot soldiers" and finding asylum in third countries for irreconcilable leaders.
Some Western leaders have said the conflict cannot be won militarily but Washington and NATO leaders however say talks will not be possible unless militants renounce the insurgency.
The Taliban, in turn, have said repeatedly there will be no talks until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan.
Most of the senior members of the Afghan Taliban, including their elusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, fled to neighbouring Pakistan when U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled their strict Islamist regime in late 2001.
The drive for a resolution coincides with the bloodiest period of the war, with military and civilian casualties at record levels. Some 711 foreign troops were killed in 2010, by far the deadliest year of the war for NATO-led forces.
(Editing by Paul Tait)
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