ISLAMABAD - The prospect of talks with the Taliban inched closer yesterday when the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran met to explore ways of pushing the nascent peace process forward.
The two-day trilateral meeting hosted by Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, comes as his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, claims to have opened direct discussions with the Taliban for the first time in the 11-year-old insurgency.
In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal yesterday, Karzai said the talks had taken place over the past month thanks to a US-sponsored initiative anchored in Qatar.
The Taliban, who frequently deride Karzai as an “American puppet,’’ denied any such talks had taken place.
“The Islamic Emirates have never talked with Kabul’s powerless administration,’’ said a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, in an e-mail.
Such conflicting statements have become common in a nervy process driven by rumors and speculation and which, at least until now, had all the clarity of a hall of mirrors.
The current talks in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, are significant because all players agree that Pakistan will play a crucial role in the success of any talks, largely because the Taliban leaders - and many fighters - are believed to be sheltering in Pakistan’s lawless western region.
Pakistan permitted Taliban representatives, many of whom are believed to be based in or around the cities of Karachi and Quetta, to travel to Qatar last month to meet with US representatives.
Yet the extent and nature of any Pakistani role in peace talks remain contentious, marred by deep-rooted suspicion among Afghan, Western, and even Taliban officials after decades of Pakistani meddling in Afghan affairs.
In Kabul, Western and Afghan officials suggested that Pakistan was using the trilateral meetings to provide a counterweight to US efforts to open a door to negotiations with the Taliban.
The officials speculate that Pakistan may try to set up a meeting between senior Taliban commanders and Karzai in Pakistan to prove its sincerity in supporting peace and to demonstrate its influence with the Taliban.
Pakistani civilian leaders say they are acting in good faith and have thrown their weight behind an Afghan-led peace process.