KABUL: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will visit Kabul on Saturday for talks with President Hamid Karzai as part of efforts to revive Afghanistan’s peace process before NATO troops are withdrawn next year.
The one-day visit is Sharif’s first since he took office in May and comes as Karzai is pitched in a public dispute with Washington over whether US soldiers should remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighbouring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the hardline 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Kabul and is believed to shelter some of the movement’s leaders.
A week ago Sharif met a visiting delegation from the Afghan High Peace Council, which is seeking to open negotiations with the Taliban insurgents who have fought US-led NATO and Afghan forces since 2001.
Pakistan said it recently released former Taliban number two Mullah Baradar, who is seen by Kabul as important to bringing the militants to the negotiating table.
But militant sources have complained that Baradar is effectively still behind bars in Pakistan, and there has been no confirmation that the High Peace Council was able to meet with Baradar during its visit.
Karzai, who is due to step down next year, has been stalling over a security pact with the US that would allow some US troops to stay in Afghanistan for training and counter-terror missions after the NATO combat mission ends.
The US is keen to complete the deal, but accuses Karzai of introducing new, last-minute conditions despite a “loya jirga” assembly that he convened voting last week for him to sign the agreement promptly.
The Afghan president has been bitterly critical of the US, and on Friday rounded on NATO forces over an airstrike that he said killed a two-year-old boy in the southern province of Helmand.
Afghanistan’s peace process has been at a standstill since a Taliban office opened in Qatar in June, enraging Karzai as it was styled as an embassy for a government-in-exile.
“Both the leaders will discuss the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan,” Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, a Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman, said ahead of Saturday’s visit.
The Taliban have refused to have direct contact with Karzai or with the High Peace Council, dismissing them as puppets of the US.
Karzai and Sharif met British Prime Minister David Cameron in London last month in the fourth of a series of trilateral meetings designed to foster stability in the volatile South Asia region.