Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet in Islamabad

ISLAMABAD — It’s not sitting at the table, but the US and its policies will feature heavily in talks here today between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A contentious agenda item will likely be the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are allied with the US, although it’s an uneasy alliance, and Iran is not.

The Iranians are worried that a long-term Afghan-American strategic agreement, which is now under discussion between the two countries, may lead to permanent US bases in Afghanistan, according to Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a political analyst and former Pakistani ambassador to Iran.

Khan said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would likely try to lure Pakistan away from the US.

“I’m quite sure Ahmadinejad will offer all sorts of inducements while demanding that we stay away from the anti-Iran coalition and we help them fight the sanctions,” he said.

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Iran would, for instance, offer Pakistan help to speed up the construction of a gas pipeline, a project the United States vehemently opposes but which is of vital importance to Pakistan. And on Tuesday, Seyed Hassan Yahyavi, Iran’s consul general in Quetta, offered increased investment in Pakistani industry and infrastructure, as well as a much-needed 1,000-megawatt boost of electricity to Pakistan.

Iran, however, will have a hard time prying the two countries out of the grip of the US, which the two have significant financial ties to.

“Of course Karzai’s dependency on the west on security and budgets remains overwhelming. That limits his options,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, referring to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But he applauds the idea of more regional cooperation.

“Afghanistan will have to live with its neighbors and it makes sense to establish regular exchanges,” he said.

Analysts and officials said that the two-day meeting would focus heavily on the future of Afghanistan after US and NATO forces leave in 2014, as well as the peace talks being held between the Taliban and the US in Qatar.

“Now that we’ve seen various diplomatic initiatives and backdoor channels opened between the US and the Taliban, I think there is a greater urgency to align policies on Afghanistan,” said Simbal Khan, a director at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad.

But despite that greater urgency, the leaders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye and distrust will likely cast a shadow over the summit, analysts said.

“There are different attitudes toward the Afghan peace process. The moment the peace process comes up there will be disagreements,” former ambassador Khan. “Historically these countries are not on the same page as far as Afghanistan is concerned.”

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Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, an Afghan analyst and leader of the Kuchi tribe, said Karzai will likely ask Pakistan to hand over captured senior Taliban members in the hopes of opening a channel to the Taliban.

“He wants them handed over to the Afghan government and he probably thinks he can have leverage by helping those guys so he can derail the Qatar negotiations between the Taliban and the West,” he said.

Karzai last December rejected the US-Taliban peace talks because he said the Afghan government was kept out of the loop. But yesterday he told the Wall Street Journal that his government is now involved. Analysts believe he’d rather try to establish his own backchannel talks.

Top on the list of prisoners is Abdul Ghani, better known as Mullah Baradar or Mullah Brother because the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, considers him to be a brother. Pakistan captured him in 2010 along with several others after he made contact with Kabul — a move that was unauthorized by Pakistan, which, as a sanctuary for the Taliban, holds considerable influence over the group. Karzai’s brother Wali Ahmad, who was killed last July, was Baradar’s contact person, and Baradar belongs to the same tribe as Karzai.

A Pakistani foreign office official said he could not comment on how Pakistan would respond to Karzai’s request, probably because Pakistan’s army, not Islamabad, would make the decision. The military traditionally dominates Pakistan’s foreign policy. But even if Pakistan obliges, analysts think there is little chance Baradar’s hand-over would help Karzai.

“What I understand either from Quetta [where the Taliban leadership is believed to be based] or from the Haqqani group [an important Afghan insurgent group allied to the Taliban and believed to be supported by Pakistan] is that they would negotiate with anyone but Karzai,” Ghani said. Karzai denied this in the Wall Street Journal interview. He said that, in fact, senior Taliban leaders are talking to his government.

Meanwhile, Pakistan and Iran historically support opposing factions in Afghanistan. Pakistan backs the Pashtun-led Taliban, while Iran supports the opposing National Front of Afghanistan and communities religiously and linguistically linked to Iran.

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That could change, however, as Pakistan loses interest in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

“We have learned from our past mistakes. We are very careful not to support a one-faction-led process. That would be undesirable. We have no problems with the Taliban, but we have a problem with Talibanisation,” said a Pakistani foreign-office official on the condition of anonymity.

Pakistan has suffered greatly from the rise of extremists, which essentially rule parts of the country’s northwest and enforce strict laws, similar to those of the Taliban-regime between 1996 and 2001 in Afghanistan. Extremists, of whom some call themselves Pakistani Taliban, destroy girls' schools, flog women who walk outside with men not part of their families and behead their opponents.

Khan said Pakistan has already made frantic but unsuccessful attempts to improve relations with the National Front of Afghanistan, which was once known as the Northern Alliance an which opposes the Taliban and is traditionally backed by Iran, Russia and India. Analysts say it is a military group linked to a political wing now in the Afghan government.

“If I was in the foreign office I would certainly request the Iranians to act as interlocutors between us and the Northern Alliance,” he said.

Whatever is discussed, it will be difficult for the three countries to come up with a single strategy by Friday, Khan said.

“It’s too early. They’ll explore each other’s positions, think aloud and discuss scenarios. The common ground they would find is that American intentions are not known. They cannot be relied on,” he said.

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