Pakistan to seek greater role in Afghan peace process

Pakistan to seek greater role in Afghan peace process

As Afghanistan inches toward a political settlement with the Taliban, Pakistan seems increasingly eager to secure its strategic interests in the war-torn country when it holds high-level talks this week with US officials.

Long suspected of covertly aiding the Afghan insurgency since 2001, Pakistan would like to convince the United States of certain concessions Wednesday in the first ministerial-level strategic dialogue with the US government, dpa reported.

Successful operations against militants last year in Swat valley and South Waziristan and stepped up activities against top Afghan Taliban leaders in recent weeks have earned US appreciation and are likely to help Pakistan's cause with Washington.

Pakistan wants a significant role in the Afghan peace talks, which could lead to a broad-based government including Taliban and other militant groups.

The United States supports the Afghan-led negotiations with the insurgents as long as any who join the political process renounce violence and accept the rule of law.

"Our concern, shared by Afghanistan, is that they cease support for insurgents, they live in accordance with the Afghan constitution, renounce violence and have no ties to al-Qaeda or terrorist organizations," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters Monday in Washington.

The Pakistani delegation is led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and includes military chief General Parvez Kayani, Inter- Services Intelligence chief Shujaa Pasha and Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar.

The US side will be led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton with Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The agenda of the two-day dialogue includes defence and socio- economic issues like agriculture, communication, public diplomacy, trade, energy and water, but security matters will be the main focus.

"Afghanistan will be on the top of the list, and the talks on the rest of the issues will depend on how the sides reach a consensus on the core issue, Afghanistan," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent Pakistan analyst and former visiting professor at New York's Columbia University.

There is consensus on at least one matter. Both countries want to avoid being bypassed by their old allies - Pakistan by the Afghan Taliban, and the US by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said a senior Pakistani diplomat who asked not to be named.

Intelligence agents of both countries celebrated the recent arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Pakistani southern port city of Karachi.

Baradar, the Taliban's strategic guru, was holding direct talks with Karzai and the United Nations, which was irritating for Pakistan as it has invested hugely in Afghanistan in terms of compromises on its own security and economy.

The Americans want the Taliban at the table only after Washington's recent surge of 30,000 troops has broken militant hopes to win the battle. But Karzai seems to be in haste and working on his own plans.

Two days after his deputy spokesman Siamak Hirawi told reporters that Baradar's arrest had hampered peace initiatives, a senior delegation of the Hezb-e-Islami, one of Afghanistan's three main insurgent groups, met Karzai.

Pakistan wants assurances that Washington will not abandon the region once its goals in the war on terrorism are achieved, as it did shortly after the removal of Soviet troops from Kabul in 1990, said Rasool Bux Raees, a political scientist at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Science.

"That mistake on the part of the Americans left resourceless Pakistan with the only choice to support Taliban who emerged as a force that could take over all the jihadi groups that were fighting each other for the throne in Kabul, years after the Soviet Union's withdrawal," Bux said.

Washington has announced plans to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 but is trying to reassure the Pakistanis about long-term engagement.

"This (strategic dialogue) is not a photo op, although you will have an opportunity to take a photo," Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said at a briefing last week. "This is an intense, serious dialogue, bilaterally between the US and Pakistan."

The Obama administration this year approved a plan to send billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan over the next several years to help with infrastructure projects, building schools and bolstering the economy.

Besides a driving seat in Afghan peace talks, Pakistan is seeking more economic aid and trade concessions to compensate 40-billion- dollar losses it says it suffered due to its anti-terrorism alliance with Washington since 2001.

Foreign investors have moved out billions of dollars since 2007, when Pakistani Islamist insurgents launched a series of attacks inside the country to retaliate against Pakistan's crackdown on the Taliban's use of Pakistani soil to launch cross-border raids on NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The United States had been pressuring Pakistan to get tough with the militants.

The Pakistani military assault was destructive in north-west Pakistan and put an additional burden on the country's budget to rehabilitate hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the military actions, and caused an increase in defence spending to fight terrorism.

"Pakistan would also be asking US to share the cost for post- conflict reconstruction in the conflict areas and attend to the economic problems which Pakistan is suffering due to American war in Afghanistan," Askari said.

US may not issue "blank cheque" to meet Pakistan's demands, but the dialogue is expected to set a "process" of serious engagements in motion and provide a platform to listen to each other more attentively.

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