Pakistan says seeks to reset frayed Afghan ties

KABUL Sun Jul 21, 2013 10:16am EDT

Sartaj Aziz, who has been advising Pakistan's incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, attends an interview with Reuters at his office in Lahore May 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Sartaj Aziz, who has been advising Pakistan's incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, attends an interview with Reuters at his office in Lahore May 24, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

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KABUL (Reuters) - Pakistan's new foreign policy chief denied on Sunday backing Afghanistan's breakup or planning to end the Afghan war with a power-sharing role for the Taliban during a fence-mending visit to Kabul aimed at lowering cross-border tension.

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, said Islamabad wanted a reset on diplomacy with Kabul after a sharp deterioration triggered by botched efforts to aid U.S. efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar.

"A peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan is in the vital interest of Pakistan," Aziz said after meeting Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul. "Without peace and security in Afghanistan, peace and security in Pakistan cannot be ensured."

Aziz, an 84-year-old political veteran and former minister, was appointed foreign policy adviser after Sharif decided to hold on to responsibility for international relations following his May election victory.

Aziz was almost immediately embroiled in a furor after Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry accused him of having raised the idea of power-sharing between the government in Kabul and the Taliban to help end the 12-year-old Afghan conflict.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has always rejected power-sharing with the Taliban, who shut their political office in Doha two weeks ago after Kabul accused insurgent leaders of behaving like a government-in-waiting.

Karzai's powerful chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khurram, then aired suspicions last week that the office was part of a plot by either the United States or Pakistan aimed at "breaking up Afghanistan".

"The main support of the Taliban is from Pakistan," Khurram said, reinforcing incendiary recent Afghan army assessments that Pakistan could end the 12-year-old Afghan war if it chose to "in weeks", despite facing a Taliban insurgency of its own.

Few Western diplomats in Kabul hold high hopes that the Doha talks can be successfully revived.

"CONTACTS, NOT CONTROL"

Aziz, in Kabul to prepare for a visit by Karzai to Islamabad, said Pakistan had supported travel to Qatar by Taliban representatives at the request of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, charged with pushing peace with insurgent leaders.

"We have some influence and contacts with (Taliban in) Afghanistan. But we do not control them," Aziz said. "It is for Afghans themselves to decide what system and what kind of post 2014 arrangement they would like to have."

Pakistan is seen as crucial to stability in Afghanistan as most foreign combat troops look to leave the country in 2014, given close political and economic ties, and because militants freely pass across the porous mountain border.

Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of playing a double game, voicing public support for peace but allowing elements of its military to play a spoiling role in an effort to block the influence of its old rival, India, in Afghanistan.

Pakistan rejects that and accuses Karzai of making such complaints to reverse his unpopularity ahead of presidential elections next year at which he must step down, but could seek to install a political ally.

Sharif on Saturday ordered a new policy of no-meddling in Afghanistan and told his Foreign Ministry to formulate a new strategy of improved dialogue with both Afghanistan and India, the Nation newspaper said.

Pakistan helped the Taliban take power in Afghanistan in the 1990s and faces an insurgency itself at home. The Pakistani Taliban are a separate entity from the Afghan Taliban, though allied with them.

(Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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