Pakistani proposals for peace talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a notorious insurgent commander have triggered political tensions inside Afghanistan that analysts warn could destabilize the country.
Western officials say Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency has offered to negotiate with Sirajuddin Haqqani — an al-Qaeda-linked commander accused of numerous suicide attacks — as part of a broader initiative to find a settlement to the conflict.
Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, were due to arrive in Kabul yesterday for their third meeting with Karzai in recent months.
Frosty relations between the two sides have thawed in recent months; about 10 days ago reports emerged from Pakistan that the ISI was offering to “deliver” the Haqqani network, which is based in North Waziristan in the tribal belt.
On Sunday, al-Jazeera television reported that the talks were so advanced that Karzai had met Haqqani in the presence of Kayani and Pasha — a report that officials denied.
However, the very notion of Pakistani-sponsored talks has sparked consternation among Afghanistan’s ethnically fractured opposition, who fear the rapprochement with Islamabad will see them excluded from any future political settlement.
“None of the players believe in the current strategy,” opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah told reporters. “Karzai is going down the drain and taking the international community with him. If he thinks he can give [the Taliban] a few ministries and a few provinces, they will simply take those provinces and then force him out.”
Abdullah said he was appalled that the Afghan president had recently referred to the Taliban with the affectionate jan suffix.
“Talib-jan is how you would refer to your dearest young son — it would be considered too soft to use on a teenager,” he said.
Three weeks ago, Karzai’s intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and his interior minister, Hanif Atmar, quit in protest of the new Pakistan policy. Both men are Tajiks; Saleh was previously a leading member of the Northern Alliance that helped topple the Taliban in 2001.
Michael Semple, a regional expert, said he was alarmed at the speed with which the political class was fissuring.
“Sane people, who’ve been part of this process all along, are now saying the country won’t survive till the end of the year,” he said.
The ISI, which has long been accused of harboring the Taliban inside Pakistan’s western border, insists it is not maneuvering to return the group to power in Afghanistan.
Relations between Karzai and Pakistan are thawing rapidly. Pakistani officials have begun to speak warmly of a figure they previously disparaged.
The ISI has offered him “unconditional support on any and all decisions he makes about the future of Afghanistan,” an ISI official said.
Despite the speculation, a senior NATO official in Kabul said progress towards a deal was “pretty tentative,” adding there was “no real substance in terms of talks and what a deal with the ISI might look like.”
However, he said that with a huge fight against “their own Taliban,” the Pakistanis were reluctant to divert soldiers to tackling sanctuaries enjoyed by the Afghan Taliban. And although Karzai has tempered his anti-Pakistan rhetoric in public, he still distrusts the Pakistanis.