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Though Largely Powerless, Afghan Peace Council Visits Islamabad With High Hopes

Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani leads the Afghan High Peace Council. "I believe there are people among the Taliban that have a message that they want to talk," he has said.
The Afghan Peace Council is holding talks in Islamabad with Pakistani officials in an effort to build regional support for reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

The 15-member delegation represents the first large-scale contact between the council and Islamabad since the group was formed following last year's peace jirga in Kabul. The Afghan High Peace Council is tasked with exploring prospects for talks with the Taliban.

Ataullah Ludin, deputy chairman of the 70-member High Peace Council, is leading the delegation to Pakistan. He told journalists on January 3 that he is optimistic the meetings will help build Pakistani interest in Kabul's outreach to the Taliban.

"We are very optimistic," he told The Associated Press. "It is clear that Pakistan and Afghanistan are the victims of terrorism, and both countries have their own problems. It's also clear to us that both countries need to work together to solve those problems."

Afghanistan sees Pakistani support for reconciliation talks as vital to any prospects for success. All four main Taliban groups active in Pakistan have rear bases in Pakistan's frontier tribal areas, making them effectively immune to pressure to talk from Kabul alone.

That pressure currently consists of U.S. and Afghan military operations against the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan. It also consists of political appeals from Kabul to the Taliban to join talks in Afghanistan's national interest.

In Crisis Mode

But if the need for Pakistani support for reconciliation efforts is clear, how much the visiting Afghan peace council delegation can do to secure that support is uncertain.

For one, the visit comes as the Pakistani government is in full crisis over the defection of a major party from the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. The decision by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) on January 2 to leave the government has left Gilani scrambling today to forge new alliances amid calls for him to face a parliamentary vote of confidence.

In the presence of other legal institutions in this country that have the legislative and executive muscle, this council lacks both.
Yet perhaps more importantly, the Afghan High Peace Council has no legislative or executive power to cut deals or make binding promises on Kabul's behalf. That limits its mission in Islamabad to building public and official confidence in Kabul's outreach efforts rather than to trying to reach agreements.

"In the presence of other legal institutions in this country that have the legislative and executive muscle, this council lacks both," said Muhammad Daoud Sultanzoy, a member of Afghanistan's current parliament.

He notes that there is no provision in the Afghan Constitution for such a council to represent the state and thus its authority is moral rather than legal or policy-making.

However, because the council was created as an expression of popular Afghan will for peace, there is hope that it can advance the prospects for talks with the Taliban by building goodwill for the effort.

'Ill Will Created'

Sultanzoy compares the work of the council in part to the kind of "ping-pong" diplomacy that the United States and China engaged in 1971, where cultural exchanges led to a breakthrough in relations between the two estranged countries.

He says that while Kabul and Islamabad already have full diplomatic relations, much work remains to be done to build trust between them and develop shared goals.

"For so many years, so much ill will has been created between Pakistan and Afghanistan courtesy of certain circles in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Sultanzoy says. "The presence of such councils and their trips to each country can at least pave the way to [improved] public opinion. If the media plays its role properly and takes advantage of these goodwill trips, that can diminish the tensions that exist in both countries vis-a-vis the other."

As the delegation visits Pakistan, the council itself remains controversial in Afghanistan due to criticism that some of its leading members include longtime foes of the Taliban, former warlords, and suspected drug barons.

Among them are Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, implicated in the deaths of thousands of civilians during Afghanistan's civil war, and Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, whom President Hamid Karzai fired as the governor of southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province after nine tons of opium and heroin were found in his basement in 2005.

There are also questions of whether the Taliban are ready to negotiate with Kabul. In interviews with the media, spokesmen for the militia have variously mentioned as preconditions the release by the United States of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, the removal of scores of militants from the UN sanctions list, and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Still, the council itself says it believes it can find negotiating partners among the Taliban. Shortly after the council became operational in October, its head, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, told reporters, "I believe there are people among the Taliban that have a message that they want to talk."

The test for the council now -- three months later -- is to show it knows how to reach them and to get them to the table.