Pakistan `firmly backs` Taliban peace talks

He denied that Pakistan`s tribal areas were a safe haven for terrorists

Updated: Apr 17, 2011, 11:18 AM IST

Kabul: Pakistan stands strongly behind efforts to make peace with the Taliban and that while the US will play a role in any reconciliation, Kabul should set the parameters for any talks to end the war, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani said on Saturday.

At a news conference, Gilani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai said a new Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Commission comprising top-ranking officials is being set up to accelerate and promote a peace process.

Any solution to the war requires the support of Pakistan, and in particular elements of its security forces, which are believed to have links to insurgents in Afghanistan.

Gilani, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and spy chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha and other officials flew to Kabul at a time when US relations with both nations are deeply strained. Having the trio of Pakistan`s power elite at the Afghan presidential palace at the same time underscored the importance of the daylong round of talks.

"We firmly believe that this process must have full Afghan ownership," Gilani said. "It is for the Afghan nation to determine the parameters on which a reconciliation and peace process would be shaped."

The US backs reconciliation efforts, saying that it is willing to negotiate with members of the Taliban who renounce violence, sever ties with the al Qaeda terrorist network and accepts the Afghan Constitution. It`s unclear whether the US currently sees these as preconditions to talks or desired outcomes. But Gilani said that "conditions, qualifications or demands at this stage, in our view, may not be helpful”.

"Is the US on board?" he asked, repeating a reporter`s question. "Yes, the US is on board and whatever will be decided will be decided between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States."

Gilani stressed solidarity between the two nations, which share a 1,500-mile (2,430-kilometer) border. He denied that Pakistan`s tribal areas were a safe haven for terrorists — a frequent allegation made in both the US and Afghanistan.

"We are fighting a war on terrorism," he said. "If there are military actions in our area, people they go to Afghanistan and if there is a military action by NATO forces, they come to Pakistan. Therefore, we should have more intelligence cooperation, more defence cooperation and more political cooperation."

"We must complement each other. ... There should be no blame game."

US-Pakistan relations frayed after the January 27 arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Allen Davis for killing two Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him. The incident stoked anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and led to one of worst rifts between the two governments, with high-level contacts suspended for weeks. The unpopularity of American airborne drone strikes on terror targets across the border in Pakistan also has made cooperation more difficult.

Gilani described the drone strikes as "counterproductive”.

"Loss of precious human lives cannot be just dismissed as collateral damage," he said.

The Obama administration said earlier this week that it is negotiating a possible reduction in US intelligence operatives and special operations officers in Pakistan.

Karzai praised Pakistan`s decision to accelerate the work of the joint commission. "The Prime Minister`s statement was a fundamental departure from our meetings in the past," he said

Karzai also said he would welcome US participation in the commission.

"We have recently seen more interest by the United States in the peace process," Karzai said, adding that it was the topic of his recent video conference with President Barack Obama.

He said that if members of the Taliban who are interested in negotiating peace were in Pakistan, they should be "given protection and they should not be treated otherwise”.

Karzai accepted Pakistan`s invitation to visit Islamabad in the near future to further discussion reconciliation. He also said that the role of other nations in the region, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, had been endorsed by both countries, but he did not elaborate.

Karzai also used the press conference to reiterate his complaints about the deaths of Afghan civilians in coalition operations.

US relations with Karzai have soured over the issues of civilian casualties, night raids by US Special Operations Forces and anti-American sentiment among Afghan citizens, who have lost faith in the international effort to improve their lives and end years of fighting.

Anti-American fervour only deepened when a Muslim holy book was recently burned at a Florida church. The incident sparked deadly protests across the country, including one that left four Nepalese guards and three international UN workers dead at their compound in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

Bureau Report