Support for peace talks growing, Afghan diplomat says
KABUL (Reuters) - Support is building among Afghanistan's regional neighbors for a comprehensive peace process with the Taliban, but Pakistan's backing and access to insurgent leaders are crucial to getting stalled talks on track, a top Afghan diplomat said.
Jawed Ludin, the deputy foreign minister and senior negotiator in talks with Washington on an Afghan-U.S. strategic pact, also said the two allies were near agreement on a deal to curb controversial night raids by NATO troops on Afghan homes.
But Ludin - the main architect of Afghan foreign policy - said both sides had failed to communicate the benefits of the pact and dampen anxiety among Afghans that foreigners were preparing to abandon the country after a 2014 withdrawal of Western combat troops.
"We need to communicate better, we need to explain it better. There are various interests, there are people who play this up the wrong way, they explain it the wrong way," Ludin told Reuters late on Saturday ahead of a trip to Australia.
"Some would like to see this as our inability to succeed and then the end of commitment."
The United States and Afghanistan have for months been negotiating on a strategic pact for a long-term presence in Afghanistan of U.S. advisers and possibly some elite troops, while at the same time trying to draw the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents into twin-track peace talks.
But in March the Taliban suspended exploratory negotiations with the United States, seen by backers as a way to end the country's conflict, while refusing to meet President Hamid Karzai's government, calling its officials U.S. "stooges".
Ludin, a former chief of staff and spokesman for Karzai, said he was confident an agreement would soon be signed with Qatar to open a Taliban representative office in the Gulf state as a vehicle for talks, about which he was "positive".
Ludin said he also held strong hopes that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia's governments would weigh in to give political momentum to Afghan government efforts to engage the Taliban.
"We are working under the assumption that once this process moves, and once we bring some of the other contributing elements to this, we need to make sure we create an environment with support from not just Pakistan, but other countries - notably Saudi Arabia - but above all Pakistan," said Ludin.
"I think at the regional level, we seem to be coming closer to a consensus that is basically the need of the day, and that there will have to be a political process, there will have to be something done to end violence and bring peace to Afghanistan."
The "key contribution" for talks to succeed would need to be from Pakistan, where the Afghan president travelled in February to ask for access to Taliban leaders belonging so the so-called Quetta Shura (council), Ludin said.
Named after the Pakistani city where they are said to be based, Shura members would be the decision makers in any substantive peace negotiations. But Pakistan denies any top insurgents enjoy sanctuary within its borders.
"There are a number of elements and we all know what those are. The question of access, the question of providing a conducive environment for contacts to be established and for talks to take place wherever they are," Ludin said.
"We need to bring about an environment where leadership of the Taliban can viably use that office to engage with Afghanistan, with the government of Afghanistan, in constructive forward-looking talks about the peace process and about taking this step forward."
A revitalized peace process would be in the interests of the entire region, Ludin said, although some groups he would not name were acting as "spoilers" to a negotiated peace after decades of war during which millions of Afghans have fled.
While he would not clarify whether he meant neighboring nations, reports in the United States this week said American officials believed Iranian agents had been active in trying to instigate violent protests in Afghanistan after the inadvertent burning of Korans by a U.S. soldier at a NATO base.
"There is no doubt that there are various diverging interests at work," Ludin said. "What is important is that we really do not create excuses and opportunities for spoilers, for elements that wish to undermine the current transition. That should be our priority and that will be our priority."
Karzai has demanded U.S. and other foreign troops withdraw from Afghan villages after an American soldier allegedly massacred 17 civilians in Kandahar, while the burning of Korans in February triggered protest riots that raged for a week.
Afghanistan had signed strategic agreements with several countries contributing troops to the 130,000-strong NATO coalition in the country, including Britain and Italy. The government would soon finalize one more with close U.S. ally Australia, Ludin said before leaving for Canberra.
The transition to fully Afghan-provided security to be completed by 2014 was poorly understood, he said, as the country would then enter a period of transformation, with Western aid and advisers likely to remain in the country.
Economic aid would also continue to ensure no sudden economic collapse and flight of capital as wealthy Afghans and businesses moved their assets to safety elsewhere.
"In the last 10 years, it has been about military security assistance to Afghanistan. Now that we have our own institutions, we don't need that kind of support. What we need is your political commitment ... and also not least your economic assistance in the long term," he said.
Ludin said the government had made clear it was interested in a political solution with the Taliban and denied strategic partnership talks with the U.S. and other nations were inconsistent with Islamist demands for foreign troops and advisers to leave the country, and for Islamic-focused reform.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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