ISLAMABAD Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday stressed the need for Pakistan's help in arranging peace talks with the Taliban in a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who assured him of his support.
Pakistan backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is seen as a crucial gatekeeper in attempts by the U.S. and Afghan governments to contact insurgent leaders who fled to Pakistan after the group's 2001 ouster.
But Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of playing a double game in the 12-year-old war, saying its neighbor, facing a Taliban insurgency of its own, makes pronouncements about peace, but allows elements of its military to play a spoiling role.
Pakistan is keen to limit the influence of its old rival, India, in Afghanistan.
Karzai, who has close ties with India, said he had "primarily and with emphasis" asked the Pakistanis to help with reconciliation as most foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year.
He wants Pakistan to help arrange contacts between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council, the government body tasked with reconciliation, or release high-ranking Taliban prisoners who might act as interlocutors.
Sharif, who appeared with Karzai to deliver statements after their talks in the Pakistani capital, did not specifically address those requests.
It is unclear whether the Afghan Taliban, in power from 1996 and 2001, will have a role in the next government.
The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and impose Islamist rule, have refused to talk to Karzai, accusing him of being an American puppet.
"For the two countries, the primary concern is lack of security for their citizens and the continued menace of terrorism," said Karzai. "It is this area that needs to have primary and focused attention from both governments."
"STRONG, SINCERE SUPPORT"
Sharif assured him of support and closed his address by listing economic deals the two countries had struck.
"Pakistan (has) strong and sincere support for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. We fully agreed that this process has to be inclusive, Afghan-owned and Afghan-led," Sharif said.
The Taliban in June set up an office in Doha, touted as a conduit for peace talks with the United States, but the office infuriated Karzai the day it opened by displaying a flag bearing symbols from the time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Karzai accused the Taliban of running an embassy rather than an office. The office has now closed.
Karzai has made 19 trips to Pakistan but this was his first meeting with Sharif since Sharif's landslide election win in May.
An Afghan-based analyst said people there might be disappointed that Karzai and Sharif had not show more solidarity on the question of the Taliban insurgency.
"The two leaders were not on the same page," said Barhan Osman of the Afghanistan Analysts Network think-tank.
"One was talking about the peace process as the top issue and one was talking about trade as the top issue ... it was not what the Afghans were looking for."
Even if Sharif wanted to persuade the Taliban to talk to Karzai, it was unclear how much influence he had, Osman said.
Security and foreign policy in Pakistan is overseen by the military. Ever since Muslim Pakistan was carved out of British-ruled India in 1947, the military has seen India as Pakistan's greatest threat.
(Reporting By Katharine Houreld; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)