October 2, 2011 7:37 pm

Frustrated Karzai lashes out at Pakistan

Riding a wave of Afghan anger against Pakistan, President Hamid Karzai has taken a tougher stance against Islamabad in an attempt to bring insurgents to the negotiating table.

In a measure of his growing frustration, Mr Karzai took a swipe at Islamabad at the weekend. He said it was clear the Taliban’s leaders, who are based in Pakistan, were not independent enough to enter talks on their own.

“The people of Afghanistan ask me: ‘Mr President, who are you negotiating with, who is the other side of the peace talks?’ I have no answer except to say that my partner, or the other side of the peace talks, is Pakistan,” Mr Karzai said.

Popular hostility towards Pakistan, which Afghans have long suspected of supporting the Taliban, has grown following the killing last month of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president, who had been leading Mr Karzai’s reconciliation initiative.

Afghan officials said at the weekend they suspected the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of playing a role in the murder. Hundreds of protesters marched in Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Sunday chanting: “Death to ISI, death to Pakistan.”

Turning up the heat on Islamabad, Mr Karzai’s office said the suicide bomber who killed Rabbani had been a Pakistani and the murder had been planned in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

There has been a parallel surge in tensions between Islamabad and Washington, which has accused the ISI of supporting the Haqqani network of Afghan insurgents who attacked the US embassy in Kabul last month.

The three-sided war of words is a setback for the Obama administration’s hopes of coaxing Kabul and Islamabad into working together to stabilise the region as US troops reduce their footprint ahead of a handover to Afghan forces in 2014. Seeking to defuse tensions, Washington said on Sunday it was sending Marc Grossman, its special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the region.

Mr Karzai had been seeking closer ties with Islamabad in an attempt to win its help in convincing the Taliban to talk. But Rabbani’s killing has crystallised a long-standing Afghan belief that Pakistan is intent on continuing to support the insurgency as part of its cold war with India.

The suspicions gained impetus last month when Admiral Mike Mullen, who stepped down as head of the US joint chiefs of staff on Friday, said the Haqqani network was a “veritable arm” of the ISI. The Nato-led force in Afghanistan said at the weekend it had struck a blow against the Haqqanis by capturing Haji Mali Khan, who they said was the group’s military commander in Afghanistan, in the eastern Paktia province.

Pakistan denies supporting insurgents and says it had no role in Rabbani’s death. But the assurances had done little to ease Mr Karzai’s disappointment with Islamabad, said Davood Moradian, a former presidential adviser.

“He felt he has been cheated by Pakistan so he needs the support of the international community to either convince or coerce Pakistan to change its policy,” said Mr Davood, who teaches at the American University of Afghanistan. “There is a huge mutual suspicion on both sides. We’re living on two different planets.”

Sporadic cross-border shelling has heightened suspicions. Kabul had postponed a meeting between US, Afghan and Pakistani officials scheduled for October 8 and a planned visit by Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, an Afghan official said. Instead, Mr Karzai would visit India this week, a move sure to stoke Pakistani suspicions.

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