- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2010

U.S. officials and a former Afghan foreign minister are expressing skepticism over Pakistan-brokered talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and al Qaeda-affiliated groups, saying Islamabad appears to be trying to install its proxies in a future government in Kabul.

With an assessment for a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan set to begin in July 2011, Pakistan has stepped in to fill what it sees as a security vacuum in its neighborhood.

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and its director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha are leading the vacuum-filling efforts. The two recently facilitated a meeting between Mr. Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the al Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network, according to an Al Jazeera news report over the weekend.

The Obama administration says it will consider dealing with only those groups that cease violence, support the Afghan Constitution and renounce al Qaeda. U.S. officials say the Haqqani network does not meet the criteria and describe the prospect of negotiations between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Haqqani as disturbing.

Still, Mr. Obama said over the weekend the negotiations should be viewed with “skepticism, but also openness.”

Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, on Monday said reports of a Karzai-Haqqani meeting were baseless.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss intelligence matters, said U.S. and Pakistani officials share a “regular, robust and candid” dialogue, including when differences arise. “Everyone’s eyes are wide open, of course, to the complexities of the Pakistanis’ historical relationships with certain players in the region,” the official said.

Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network and the Taliban is cause for frustration among U.S. and Afghan officials. They see in Pakistan’s recent actions as proof that the U.S. ally continues to support those groups and is seeking to secure spots for their pro-Pakistan leaders in a future Kabul government.

Abdullah Abdullah, a foreign minister in Mr. Karzai’s first Cabinet, described Pakistan’s actions as suspicious.

“The very fact that [the terrorists] trust Pakistan as a mediator is proof that Pakistan is still helping these al Qaeda-affiliated groups,” Mr. Abdullah said in a phone interview from Afghanistan.

Much like the Taliban, the Haqqani network continues to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“Peeling away lower-level fighters probably isn’t a bad idea, but the Haqqani leadership sure has a hell of a lot to answer for,” the U.S. official said. “The reality is that the Haqqanis have American blood on their hands. They routinely attack coalition forces in Afghanistan and are constantly plotting brutal acts of terror.”

Pakistan’s actions are being driven by a fear of encirclement by India and are a manifestation of the proxy war being waged with its longtime rival in Afghanistan, said former U.S. officials and analysts. The nuclear-armed neighbors in South Asia have fought three wars since achieving independence from Britain in 1947.

“Combined with the many other challenges facing Afghanistan today, the so-called proxy war of the Pakistan-India rivalry in that country makes the odds of Afghanistan becoming a stable country that much more difficult,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.

India has invested billions of dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s war-ravaged infrastructure, actions that Pakistan views with suspicion. Pakistani officials say Indian consulates in the Afghan cities of Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar provide cover for Indian intelligence agencies to run covert operations against Pakistan and foment unrest in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

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