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Pakistan Advises Holbrooke To Talk To Taliban Moderates

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (right) meets with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke in Islamabad.
ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan has advised U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach out to reconcilable elements of the Taliban movement as part of a strategy for peace in the region.

Envoy Richard Holbrooke met with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani during a visit that will last until February 12.

Holbrooke's priorities are turning the tide against a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, crushing Al-Qaeda, and making sure neither country is again used as a base for followers of Osama bin Laden's global jihad.

The U.S. plan to double the number of troops in Afghanistan to over 60,000 in the next 18 months would only work if it was accompanied by political engagement with Taliban moderates, warned Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

"Obviously, there are some irreconcilable elements and no one wants to deal with them...But there is a reconcilable element and we should not overlook their importance," he said.

Late last year, Saudi Arabia helped bring together former Taliban officials and Afghans linked to the government for talks.

But Afghanistan mistrusts Pakistani involvement.

President Hamid Karzai's government suspects Pakistani spies secretly back the Taliban in the hope of eventually regaining influence in Kabul, despite Islamabad having publicly abandoned support for the Islamist militia in 2001.

'Red Lines'

Known for his bulldozing style negotiating an end to war in the former Yugoslavia almost 15 years ago, Holbrooke is new to South Asia and his appointment demonstrated the importance Obama gives to the region.

Expected to set out a new strategy for a NATO summit on April 2, Holbrooke said when he arrived on February 9 that he wanted to hear the differing viewpoints as he goes from Islamabad to Kabul, and finally to India.

Pakistan's fragile 10-month old civilian government needs political and financial support, as an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund last staved off virtual bankruptcy.

Qureshi said Holbrooke's visit marked a "new beginning" in relations with the United States, but he also called for mutual respect and a rethink on the use of U.S. drone aircraft to eliminate militant targets on Pakistani soil.

"We also have to have red lines on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to the U.S., and what is acceptable and not acceptable to Pakistan," Qureshi told a news conference.

U.S. officials say the missile attacks have significantly degraded the midlevel Al-Qaeda leadership.

Pakistan argues that civilian casualties have hardened anti-American sentiment and fuelled support for Islamist militants whose insurgency in the northwest threatens to destabilize the country.

Pakistan believes the $11 billion it has received from Washington for joining the U.S.-led "war on terror" is poor reward given the insecurity it has suffered as a result.

Not only is there an insurgency raging across the northwest, but rival India has gained influence in Kabul at its expense.

Tension arising from an attack by Pakistani militants on the Indian city of Mumbai in November, when 179 people were killed, has magnified the neighbors' chronic lack of trust.

Qureshi said he didn't talk about Mumbai with Holbrooke.

But he let Holbrooke know any confrontation with India would force Pakistan to drop fighting the war on terror down its list of priorities.

"I did point out to him that if Pakistan has to remain focused on the western front then obviously a calm eastern front is to everybody's advantage," Qureshi said.

Pakistan would dearly like U.S. diplomatic support to persuade India to settle the long-standing territorial dispute over Kashmir, but the timing is all wrong from India's standpoint as anger is still boiling over Mumbai.

India fears Pakistani jihadis will launch more attacks on its cities, and analysts say Holbrooke will be told in New Delhi that India has its own security concerns and he should not attempt to make Kashmir part of a U.S. formula for stability in Afghanistan.