December 19, 2012 7:40 pm

The pursuit of an Afghan peace deal

Powers agree on the need to end the war

The Pakistanis say it is the belligerent Americans who have changed their stance. The US and the Afghan government insist Pakistan has shifted. But all now agree on the need for a deal to end the war in Afghanistan. Only the Taliban militants fighting there remain to be convinced.

Plans to withdraw the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in 2014 have persuaded western governments of the need for a settlement.

“We are not going to win militarily,” says one western policy maker involved in preparations for talks. “The insurgents are also not going to win ... There is on all sides a recognition that some sort of dialogue needs to be started. The prize is so big and so valuable that it justifies every effort.”

The aim is to leave a modicum of stability in the nation where Osama bin Laden planned the attacks of September 11 2001, provoking the US-led overthrow of the Taliban that year.

Pakistan – which with the US spawned the Taliban by hosting the Mujahideen fighters in their successful war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s – denies it can “deliver” the Taliban but accepts that it can be a “facilitator”.

Outraged by a Nato air attack a year ago that killed 24 of its troops on the Afghan border, Pakistan for six months denied the US use of the supply route between the port of Karachi and the Afghan hinterland. But relations have improved and the route has reopened, raising the chances that Nato will be able to extract much of its $60bn of equipment by land.

Neither the structure nor the venue of any negotiations has been established, although one possibility is a revival of the Qatar process, under which secret but fruitless talks between the US and the Taliban began two years ago.

Pakistan, concerned about Islamic extremism, is eager to promote a deal and avoid the violence in Afghanistan that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. To that end it is freeing Afghan Taliban militants so they can take part in talks with the Afghan government. Exploratory meetings involving Taliban and Afghan officials are due to begin near Paris today.

“It’s the reality of 2014 dawning on everyone, creating a compelling rationale for [Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan] to co-operate,” says Maleeha Lodhi, an analyst and former Pakistani ambassador to the US.

“It’s in Pakistan’s interest to see 2014 not become another 1989 ... For the Americans it would be an embarrassment. For Pakistan it would be a disaster.”

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