ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan is sending a top official to the Afghan capital this weekend to try to mend fences with its uneasy neighbor, and hanging in the balance are U.S. efforts to arrange peace talks with the Taliban.
The trip comes roughly two weeks after the Taliban closed their newly opened political office in the Gulf state of Qatar following angry complaints from Afghanistan that the Islamic militant movement had set it up as a virtual rival embassy, with a flag and sign harkening back to the days they ruled the country.
The political office was part of a U.S. plan to launch peace talks with the Taliban to end the protracted war, with American and other NATO combat troops scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year. But the talks ended before they could even begin amid the uproar last month.
Pakistan, which had helped persuade Taliban to agree to sit down with the Americans — and possibly with the Afghans after that — now contends that intransigence, suspicion and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reluctance to invite his political opponents at home to the negotiating table in Qatar is hobbling efforts to start the talks.
"They (Taliban) listen to us. We have some influence but we can't control them," Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's special adviser on national security and foreign affairs, told The Associated Press in advance of his trip to Kabul on Saturday.
"But they (Taliban) also say that the High Peace Council is not fully representative," Aziz said, referring to Karzai's 80-member negotiating team. "President Karzai should invite other people to join them."
Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council, told the AP that if the Taliban were making wider representation on the negotiating team a condition to restarting talks, then it "would be worth considering." But he was suspicious of Pakistan, wanting assurances first that the demand was from the Taliban and not Pakistan.
Rancor and suspicion between Pakistan and Afghanistan run deep. Kabul blames Islamabad for not cracking down on Taliban militants who use the border area as a base to carry out attacks on Afghans and international forces in Afghanistan. For its part, Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of sabotaging peace efforts with its provocative statements, overtures to India and refusal to acknowledge the bloody war Islamabad is waging in its border regions.
One senior Western official, who is deeply familiar with the peace talks, said the depth of the animosity between the two countries hinders efforts to reach a negotiated peace with the Taliban.
"It's kind of a no-win situation," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "When they're (the Pakistanis) not helpful, there's a lot of suspicion (from Afghanistan) that they're being unhelpful, and when they are helpful there's a lot of suspicion that if they're helpful then maybe this isn't something that's good for Afghanistan."
In a dozen interviews with U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials, and analysts who have long followed Afghanistan, the consensus was that a negotiated peace is unlikely before next year's troop withdrawal and the election of a new Afghan president in April.
They cited hurt feelings, bellicose statements, regional wrangling and Karzai's fear of being cut out of any peace deal that involves the United States. And they said there is a real risk of civil war in Afghanistan after 2014 when the last of the U.S. and NATO combat troops are scheduled to have left the country.
Although the sentiment among the officials and analysts was that Pakistan could do more, there was also an increasing wariness with what was seen as Karzai's strategy of belligerence in dealing with both Pakistan and the United States to keep them in line.
Last week the Taliban closed their political office in Qatar, at least temporarily, to protest the fracas that erupted at its opening in June over their use of the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the white flag that symbolized their five-year rule that ended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The Taliban took down the sign and the flag at the insistence of host Qatar, but were no longer in the mood to talk.
While Pakistan says it is still trying to cajole the militants to the negotiating table, analysts and officials say it's complicated. Just navigating the competing interests in the region is a minefield, they say.
Pakistan worries that Afghanistan is becoming a client state of its old enemy India, which is pouring in money and offering military assistance to Kabul.
Karzai, in turn, has been channeling Afghan anger at Pakistan over a border dispute.
The 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) border that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan is called the Durand Line, named for the Briton who helped demarcate it more than 120 years ago. In May, Karzai warned Pakistan against trying to establish the Durand Line as an international border, and effectively told the United States to mind its own business when it said that it too considered the line to be the border.
The Taliban insurgency is strongest in the border regions, confounding efforts by international and Afghan troops to gain an upper hand in the 12-year Afghan war. The border area is dominated by Pashtuns, the ethnic group that forms the backbone of the Taliban. Pashtuns are also the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
"In certain respects, Pakistan and Afghanistan merge into each other, via the Pashtun ethnicity which straddles the border between them," said Anatol Lieven, professor in the War Studies Department of Britain's King's College. "Pakistan's Afghan policy today is essentially an attempt to reconcile the need to appease Pakistani Pashtun opinion and prevent more Pashtuns joining the Islamist revolt within Pakistan."
Lieven said Pakistan views the Taliban as a possible ally to stem Indian influence in Afghanistan but does not want the return of Taliban mullah rule there. Pakistan knows a militant victory in Afghanistan would empower its own Taliban, who have killed more than 4,000 Pakistani soldiers and tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians.
Not least among obstacles to peace is Karzai's undying suspicion of U.S. intentions.
A senior Afghan official told the AP that Karzai fears a U.S. manipulated peace process will impose a solution on Afghanistan that would likely marginalize him and his choice for president in next year's election. Speaking on condition of anonymity so that he could talk freely, he said Karzai's strategy to keep the U.S. in line has been to talk tough and even threaten.
One senior U.S. official said Kabul's belligerent rhetoric is making it difficult to move reconciliation forward. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the talks, he said Washington left out an acknowledgment of Pakistan's assistance in getting the peace process started in its statement welcoming the opening of the Taliban's Qatar office. This was because U.S. negotiators worried that mentioning Pakistan's role might offend Karzai.
Instead it offended the Pakistanis, who took it as a snub, he said.
Lieven said that in one respect, the U.S. and its NATO allies are in a much weaker position than the Soviets were in 1989 when they left Afghanistan after 10 years of war.
The Soviets left behind Najibullah Khan, "a rather formidable Pashtun dictator" as their choice of president.
By contrast, he noted, "we have committed ourselves to hold presidential elections next year — and if they collapse, they could take the entire existing Afghan state and army with them."
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed at www.twitter.com/kathygannon . Associated Press writer David Rising in Kabul contributed to this report.