Pakistani, Afghan clerics bicker over peace summit



Islamabad: Pakistani clerics threatened today to boycott a peace conference in Afghanistan after a dispute over whether to invite the Taliban, another sign of how hard it will be for the two states to cooperate on a deal to end the 11-year-old Afghan war.

The dispute followed talks between Pakistani and Afghan clerics in Islamabad that ended yesterday. The visiting Afghan delegation, which sought to play down the disagreement, was in town on a seemingly simple mission to finalise plans for a conference of religious scholars in Kabul next month meant to denounce suicide attacks and other forms of violence in the name of Islam.

Kabul and Islamabad announced the plan for the conference in November as a sign of improving relations. But the latest talks seemed to do more to highlight longstanding disputes, especially over the Taliban.

Pakistan helped the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of maintaining ties to the group -- an allegation denied by Islamabad.

Many analysts agree that the Pakistani military continues to view the Taliban as an important counterweight to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, which is seen as too close to Pakistan's archenemy, India.

Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, head of the All Pakistan Ulema Council and also the chief of Pakistan's five-member delegation, accused the visiting Afghan clerics of trying to use the upcoming conference to denounce the Taliban and elicit support for the Afghan government. He insisted the Taliban be invited to the event to advance the peace process.

"During yesterday's talks, we felt that they want to invite us to Kabul for next month's conference to get an edict against the Taliban and to issue a statement in favor of Hamid Karzai," Ashrafi told The Associated Press.

He accused the Afghan clerics of being too close to the government and threatened Pakistani religious leaders would boycott the upcoming meeting because of differences between the two sides. Ashrafi is seen as close to Pakistan's security establishment.

A member of the Afghan delegation, Aminullah Muzafery, painted the meeting in a more positive light and sought to downplay Ashrafi's comments, although he never mentioned him by name.

PTI