Islamabad: Afghan President Hamid Karzai is using old friends and new allies to try to bring some of the fiercest Taliban to the negotiating table, although their links to al Qaeda might scuttle any deal.
Pakistan is trying to broker a deal between the Afghan government and the Haqqani group, one of the most violent Taliban factions led by veteran rebel leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, according to Afghan parliamentarians and Pakistani analysts.
Haqqani was a legendary commander in the war against the Soviets who had close ties to the Reagan administration. Now, he and his son Sirajuddin command hundreds perhaps thousands of fighters blamed for some of the most audacious attacks in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan.
Their network is based in the North Waziristan tribal area along Pakistan`s border with Afghanistan.
"The President is trying to use old friendships with Jalaluddin Haqqani and his sons to make them participate in the reconciliation process," said Khaled Pashtun, an Afghan lawmaker from the Taliban heartland of southern Kandahar.
"Pakistan is also pressurising the government to bring this person (Haqqani) in the government."
Yet Haqqani`s ties to al Qaeda run deep. His friendship with Osama bin Laden dates back to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Haqqani allowed bin Laden to set up a base on his territory in Khost province of eastern Afghanistan. The US fired cruise missiles at the base in 1998 in a bid to kill bin Laden.
Haqqani also ensured safe passage for foreign fighters, including senior al Qaeda figures, when they fled into Pakistan after the collapse of Taliban rule in the 2001 US invasion, according to Taliban officials in Kabul at the time.
Since President Barack Obama announced the start of a US withdrawal in July 2011, Karzai has sought to improve relations with Pakistan and reach out to the insurgents. Last month, he told a national peace conference in Kabul he would talk with any militant leader.
As a sign of good faith, he pledged to seek the release of detainees and lobby the UN to remove some of the insurgent leaders from a blacklist that froze their bank accounts and prevents them from travelling abroad.
He also signed a reintegration decree this week offering amnesty and economic incentives to Taliban fighters who want to leave the battlefield, if they accept the Afghan Constitution and break ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Obama has said the July 2011 date does not herald a rapid American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Washington is committed to a long-term relationship with the Afghans.
Nonetheless, Obama`s deadline has prompted Pakistan to review its own strategy in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Pakistani military and the country`s spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI believes the Haqqani group is an important force to protect Pakistani interests in
Retired Pakistani Gen Talat Masood said Pakistan`s military believes that bringing insurgents including the Haqqani group into the Afghan government is the only way of stabilising the country once America and its allies leave.
But the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, describes Haqqani as "irreconcilable”, saying negotiations with his network would strengthen al Qaeda, undermine regional stability and threaten US security.
In a study released this week, the Institute cited a statement released in April by Sirajuddin Haqqani, describing cooperation with al Qaeda as "at its highest level”.
"Any negotiated settlement with the Haqqanis threatens to undermine the raison d`être for US involvement in Afghanistan over the past decade," the study said.
The Haqqani group trains, lives and works with a list of deadly international terrorist groups, including Pakistan`s Lashkar-e-Toiba, and the Islamic Jihad Union, whose ranks include Kurdish, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Turkish and German fighters, it said.
The Haqqani group`s headquarters is believed to be in the mountains of Pakistan`s North Waziristan tribal area. The US has repeatedly urged Pakistan to launch ground operations there. Pakistan has so far refused, saying its forces are spread too thin.
With 120,000 soldiers deployed to the tribal region, the Pakistan military is fighting a series of deadly wars along the length of the border area with Afghanistan.