ISLAMABAD -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to help arrange peace talks between Kabul and Taliban militants.
Speaking in Islamabad, Karzai said the most important issue he and Sharif discussed on August 26 was how to work together against "terrorism" and advance the peace process.
"We discussed in this regard, primarily, and with emphasis the issue of joint fight against extremism and reconciliation and peace building in Afghanistan," Karzai said, "with the expectation that the government of Pakistan will facilitate and help in manners it can to the peace process in Afghanistan and in providing opportunities or a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban movement."
Karzai had been expected to ask Islamabad to use its influence to convince Taliban leaders to join peace talks with an Afghan peace commission.
He said on August 26 that both Kabul and Islamabad needed to focus their attention on fighting terrorism.
"For the two countries, the primary concern is lack of security for its citizens, and the continued menace of terrorism attacking both our populations, our government, our soldiers and our security forces," Karzai said. "It is this area that needs to have primary and focused attention by both governments."
Karzai was also expected to ask Sharif for the release of jailed Taliban commanders that Kabul sees as potential negotiating partners.
Among them is Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. A trusted aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, Baradar was arrested during a joint operation by Pakistan and the CIA in 2010.
Pakistan has previously released 26 Taliban prisoners in response to demands from Kabul. Sharif gave no indication on August 26 about whether the release of more Taliban detainees was forthcoming.
"I stressed to President Karzai the importance Pakistan attaches to a peaceful, stable, and united Afghanistan. I also reaffirmed Pakistan's strong and sincere support for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan," Sharif said. "We fully agreed that this process has to be inclusive, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-led."
'Immense' Economic Opportunites
Karzai said he and Sharif also spoke about improving economic cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad.
"The two countries have immense opportunities in advancing better economic cooperation between the two countries so our future generations can unleash the energies that they have for a better life and a better future for both countries," Karzai said.
Sharif said his talks with Karzai focused on common challenges and "huge opportunities" shared by their countries.
"Afghanistan is not only a close neighbor, but also fraternal nation with which the people of Pakistan are bound by unbreakable ties of faith, friendship, and shared history," Sharif said. "Our security and the future prosperity is linked to that of Afghanistan in multiple ways."
Sharif said the two leaders decided to work more closely together to reinforce trade, energy, and communication links --- including specific highway projects and a joint hydroelectric dam project.
The visit is Karzai’s first since Sharif took office in June calling for a new policy of noninterference in Afghan affairs.
Karzai spokesman Eimal Faizi said Sharif invited Karzai and his delegation to extend their visit and continue talks on August 27.
Analysts say the key point to watch during the visit is how much the Pakistan prime minister delivers on his declared new policy toward Afghanistan.
"We have to think afresh about Afghanistan. We have to devise a strategy that will enable Pakistan to be recognized with a new shining face all over the world," Sharif said on August 19.
Sharif said in July his government wanted the restoration of peace in Afghanistan and was not supporting any militant or political group there.
Kabul has frequently accused Pakistan of trying to secure its influence in Afghanistan by backing elements of the Taliban, and Sharif’s remarks hint at a break with that record.
Will The Army Agree?
But it remains unclear how much support Sharif’s program has within the army, the body that has always controlled Pakistan’s strategy toward Afghanistan in the past.
Muhammad Malik, a senior analyst with Dunya News, says both Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders do seem to agree that a new policy is needed.
"The tension with Afghanistan has really stretched Pakistan's military resources. Troops that were earlier deployed on the Indian border have now increasingly been shifted toward Afghanistan and that is a very worrying concern for Pakistan, because Afghanistan is not a traditional adversary of Pakistan, it is just something that happened in the past few years and Pakistan definitely wants to reverse it," Malik says.
"And even if you look at the policy of the army, the earlier reflex used to be 'we want a friendly government in Kabul.' Now that has changed to [wanting] a stable and free sort of Afghanistan."
Tensions have grown with cross-border shelling by both countries’ armies. That comes as the Pakistani Taliban uses parts of Afghanistan as a safe haven in its war with Islamabad, just as the Afghan Taliban use parts of Pakistan in their war with Kabul.
Still, if there is consensus in Pakistan on the need for a stable Afghanistan, there remains one factor that could block any real change in policy. It is Pakistan’s concern that New Delhi is making steady progress in turning Afghanistan into a business, and potentially future military, partner of its own.
The India Question
One of Sharif’s first steps after becoming prime minister was to extend feelers to India. That was in recognition better relations would help ease Pakistani worries about being outflanked in Afghanistan.
But Salim Safi, a journalist with Pakistan’s private Geo television, says Sharif has made little immediate progress.
"After taking the oath as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif sent an invitation to [his Indian counterpart] and showed enthusiasm. But the response was not very positive from the Indian side, because [the Indians] have upcoming elections," Safi says.
"So, if there is no positive response, then Nawaz Sharif’s or anyone else’s position [on Afghanistan] is going to make little difference to the Pakistani military establishment or to right-wing [nationalists] in the Pakistani media or elsewhere in the political leadership."
A second key point to watch at this week’s meeting in Islamabad is how Sharif responds to an expected demand from Karzai to release Taliban leader Baradar. While his arrest in 2010 was hailed by Islamabad and Washington, Kabul said it sabotaged prospects for peace talks.
Malik says it is too early to know if Baradar will be released now by Sharif. But he says Islamabad does seem to be preparing a goodwill prisoner release of some kind in response to Karzai’s visit.
Earlier, Karzai had rebuffed an invitation from Sharif to visit Islamabad, saying he would not do so until Pakistan committed to contributing "honestly" to the peace process. Whether or not that precondition was met is unknown.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP