Nawaz Sharif in Kabul pledges support for Taliban talks

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Saturday said he supported Afghan efforts to seek peace with the Taliban as he visited Kabul for talks with President Hamid Karzai.

Kabul: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Saturday said he supported Afghan efforts to seek peace with the Taliban as he visited Kabul for talks with President Hamid Karzai.

The one-day visit was Sharif’s first since he took office in May and came as Karzai is locked in a public dispute with Washington over a security deal covering the role of US soldiers who remain in Afghanistan after next year.

“The key to sustainable peace in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond is an inclusive political settlement,” Sharif told a press conference in Kabul.

“I... urge all the stakeholders to seize this moment and join hands to support peace efforts,” he said. “It is imperative to reverse the destructive cycle of conflict.

“Pakistan will continue to extend all possible facilitation for the Afghan peace process.”

Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighbouring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the hardline 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Kabul and is believed to shelter some of the movement’s leaders.

Elements of the Pakistani state are also widely accused of funding and controlling the Taliban, and President Karzai has previously identified Taliban safe havens in Pakistan as the root cause of unrest in Afghanistan.

“There is no doubt that since (Sharif) has taken office... cooperation and relations with Afghanistan has expanded,” Karzai said after their meeting.

“Today we talked on how to proceed with the peace process, the American role in the peace process, and on how America, Pakistan and Afghanistan can jointly cooperate,” he added, giving no further details.

The Pakistani prime minister repeated that his government had released former Taliban number two Mullah Baradar, who is seen by Kabul as important to bringing the militants to the negotiating table.

But militant sources have complained that Baradar is effectively still behind bars in Pakistan.

Sharif was also due to meet the Afghan High Peace Council, which is seeking to open negotiations with the Taliban insurgents fighting US-led NATO and Afghan forces.

Karzai, who is due to step down next year, has been stalling over the security pact with the US that would allow some US troops to stay in Afghanistan for training and counter-terror missions after the NATO combat mission ends.

Washington is keen to complete the deal, but accuses Karzai of introducing new, last-minute conditions despite a “loya jirga” assembly that he convened voting for him to sign the agreement promptly.

The Afghan president has been bitterly critical of the United States, and on Friday rounded on NATO forces over an air strike that he said killed a two-year-old boy in the southern province of Helmand.

Afghanistan’s peace process has been at a standstill since a Taliban office opened in Qatar in June, enraging Karzai as it was styled as an embassy for a government-in-exile.

The Taliban have refused to have direct contact with Karzai or with the High Peace Council, dismissing them as puppets of Washington.

Afghan officials have said that Afghanistan expects Pakistan to stop militants crossing the border to launch attacks in the run-up to the April presidential elections for Karzai’s successor.

Karzai and Sharif met alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron in London in October in the fourth of a series of trilateral meetings designed to foster stability in the volatile South Asia region.

The Pakistan government has recently explored possible peace moves with the Pakistani Taliban, who are separate but linked to the Afghan group.