December 1, 2015 / 12:22 PM / 4 years ago

Afghan president eyes improved ties with Pakistan, Taliban talks

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan is hoping to improve its rocky relations with neighboring Pakistan over the next few months as a prelude to a possible return to stalled peace talks with Taliban insurgents, President Ashraf Ghani told a French television station.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Ghani, who met Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the margins of the climate conference in Paris on Monday, was cautious about prospects for any quick breakthrough after years of what he called “an undeclared state of hostilities” between the two countries.

But said he was considering an invitation to visit Pakistan next week and, with fighting normally slackening in the winter months, he said Pakistan could play a role in brokering contacts with Taliban fighters that Afghanistan has long said were being steered from Islamabad.

“The focus is to have a serious choreography where we can move in tandem and focus on resolution of the issues between now and the end of winter,” he told France 24 television. “Pakistan can be a broker. The trust needs to be earned.”

The comments add to signs of a fresh willingness to resume the peace process, with major powers including the United States and China pushing for a political solution.

Talks facilitated by Pakistan were broken off in July after confirmation that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died two years earlier triggered a leadership crisis. The Taliban are fighting to re-establish hard-line Islamist rule 14 years after the U.S.-led military intervention that toppled their regime.

But deep suspicions still stand in the way of any deal between Kabul, which accuses Pakistan of backing the insurgency, and Islamabad, which rejects the charge.

“Don’t get your expectations too high,” a senior Afghan official said. “If Pakistan says ‘we’ll do something for you in the peace process’, we’re not going to rush. We will have to verify it,” he said.

How far the Taliban themselves may be willing to resume talks is still unclear after months of fierce fighting in which they briefly took the vital northern city of Kunduz, their biggest success in the 14-year insurgency.

The movement is currently split by fighting between rival factions but Ghani said elements may be willing to return to the peace table.

“There is no such thing as the Taliban after the death of Mullah Omar,” Ghani said.

“There are groups of Taliban and we will engage in talking with some of them and if some of them would like to come through the mediation of Pakistan, that’s something that we need to talk about,” he said.

Last week, the movement said it had confirmed Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai as head of its political office in Qatar, in a sign of a potential readiness to resume talks.

Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie

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