KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan accused Pakistan on Thursday of placing unacceptable conditions on efforts to bring peace to the country after nearly 12 years of war, the latest in a series of barbed exchanges that has sunk relations between the two neighbors to a new low.
A breakdown in ties threatens to hinder — or even paralyze — attempts to lure the Taliban to the negotiating table. That's a key goal of the United States and its allies as they work for a peaceful solution in Afghanistan ahead of the final pullout of foreign combat forces in 20 months.
Afghanistan and its international backers consider Pakistan a critical player in bringing the Taliban and other militant groups into peace talks. Pakistan holds dozens of Taliban prisoners and has been accused of backing the insurgents in an effort to be able to exert influence in Afghanistan after foreign troops leave.
A senior Pakistan official said, however, that Islamabad remained committed to reconciliation.
That's why Pakistan recently released 26 Afghan Taliban prisoners from its jails, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Pakistan remains in contact with members of the Taliban who have been empowered to talk about reconciliation, he said.
A failure to bring peace could endanger the stability of Afghanistan and much of the region, including Pakistan, which is fighting its own domestic Taliban insurgency.
"We have told the Pakistanis that they should support peace in Afghanistan not only for the sake of the Afghan people, but for their own sake," Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday.
He said Afghanistan wants a close, broad, strategic relationship with Pakistan, "but one between two equal independent sovereign states, nothing less."
Pakistan, Mosazai said, is constantly shifting its position. Islamabad should be "supporting the Afghan peace process in a more meaningful way and having an independent bilateral relationship that is not based on a delusional desire to control Afghanistan."
So far, Afghanistan has been unsuccessful in getting militants to negotiate peace and needs Pakistan's help. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has urged the Taliban to work out a political resolution to the war and has backed a plan for the Taliban to open an office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Publicly, the Taliban have long refused to speak directly with Karzai or his government, which they view as a puppet of foreign powers. Afghanistan thinks Pakistan has the influence to get them to talk so it's not helpful when the two capitals are feuding.
Relations between the two countries have been hot and cold in recent years.
Afghanistan often blames Pakistan for supporting insurgents who are fighting both NATO troops and government forces. Afghan officials also claim Pakistan has had a role in major attacks and suicide bombings. They said a suicide bombing that killed a former Afghan president and leader of the government-appointed peace council in September 2011 was planned in Quetta, Pakistan.
"It is not a tempest in a teapot," said Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "An increasing number of Afghans have figured out how much of a hand Islamabad has had in all the violence over the years.
"If there is a silver lining, it's that Islamabad needs to know that the world has figured them out and that they can't continue their double game indefinitely and get away with it. Some Pakistanis know that already. Many still need to understand it."
Relations between Islamabad and Kabul had been improving in recent months.
Karzai had lauded Pakistan's decision to work for peace and help Afghanistan reach out to the Taliban, whose leaders are thought to be based in Pakistan.
In July, when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Kabul and met with Karzai and the Pakistani prime minister, they pledged to work together to eliminate terrorism and agreed that peace in Afghanistan would help improve security in Pakistan.
In October, Salahuddin Rabbani, the current head of the peace council and the son of the ex-Afghan president who was slain, visited Islamabad and presented Pakistan with a plan to bring peace to his country by 2015. That plan included the active participation of Pakistan.
A month later, Pakistan's foreign minister gave the Afghans a draft agreement for a strategic partnership and Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani made a visit to Kabul. That visit further bolstered Afghan hopes that Islamabad was committed to peace and good relations.
NATO, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed a deal for better military coordination on the border, and equally important, Afghan officials said Kayani not only indicated support for the Afghan peace plan, but said that it should be accelerated from 2015 to 2013.
At a February meeting in London, the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan further cemented their relationship. At the meeting, it was announced that Afghanistan and Pakistan had committed themselves to trying to achieve peace within six months.
But Afghan officials said the meeting was not as rosy at it seemed.
They said Islamabad demanded three preconditions: That Afghanistan limit its relations with India — Pakistan's archenemy; reach a domestic consensus on peace; and immediately sign a strategic partnership with Pakistan.
Instead of the preconditions, the Afghans said they were expecting Pakistan to take its own steps toward fostering peace talks, including the release of the former No. 2 Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Afghan officials hoped that Baradar and other imprisoned members of the Taliban can help bring the Taliban to the peace talks. In January, Pakistan's foreign secretary had said Islamabad would eventually release all Taliban prisoners.
"Pakistan is continuing with delaying tactics in their support of the peace process by demanding a supposed intra-Afghan consensus on the peace process at a time that a national consensus to end the violence is the strongest it has ever been for the past decade," Mosazai told the AP.
Western officials have said that the Afghan government was too optimistic about what Pakistan was ready to give, especially on the release of Baradar, and that they should show patience.
Pakistan has denied issuing preconditions, but Afghan officials say recent comments show otherwise — including some made by unnamed Pakistani foreign ministry officials that Karzai was an impediment to peace.
"We believe that relations between the two countries are deteriorating," Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said recently. "Enough is enough."
In Islamabad, the senior Pakistani official stressed that Pakistan was supporting reconciliation. As a way to kick start the peace process, the official said Pakistan has suggested a meeting attended by the Taliban and representatives from Afghanistan's multiple ethnic groups. He insisted that the meeting was not aimed at excluding Karzai from the process, but rather to make sure that the Afghan president didn't cut out his own political opposition.
Further complicating efforts to gain traction on a peace process is internal fighting among members of the Taliban, the official said. He said there was an ongoing debate between two factions of the Taliban: Those who reject talks when they are close to seeing international forces leave and a weaker Afghan force take charge and others who see reconciliation as a way to regain political power in Afghanistan.
AP Intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier contributed from Islamabad.
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