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Pakistan, Afghanistan Moving Ahead on Peace Plan That Cuts US Peace Role

(Photo: isafmedia / Flickr)

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Islamabad – Afghanistan and Pakistan are moving ahead quickly with a new Afghan government plan that envisions peace with the Taliban by 2015, holding a summit in Turkey and working with the United States and Britain on streamlining the U.N. terrorist blacklisting system so that Afghan insurgents can be given safe passage for direct negotiations with Kabul.

Negotiations on the blacklisting procedures, which have been taking place in New York ahead of a vote to renew the U.N. system before it expires next week, could effectively give legal space and international legitimacy to the Taliban’s political wing.

“We need a ban on insurgents, not the Taliban per se,” said a diplomat in Islamabad familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We need something more helpful, more flexible, tweak the language and allow the Taliban to name negotiators who can travel.”

The new Afghan government peace plan, which McClatchy revealed over the weekend, calls for Pakistan to replace the United States in arranging direct talks between the Afghan government and leaders of the Taliban-led insurgency. Those talks, which would take place most likely in Saudi Arabia, would happen in the second half of next year, after the Taliban and the Afghan government have agreed to a cease-fire.

Under the deal, the insurgents would have to renounce violence, cut ties to al Qaida and “respect” Afghanistan’s constitution. In return, they would be given posts at all levels of government, a move that effectively would cede to them political and economic control of their strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

Among other provisions, the first step of the five-step blueprint calls for Afghanistan and Pakistan to advance the initiative in a meeting in Turkey. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, met for a second day in Ankara on Wednesday. More meetings are to be held next year in the United States and Britain, the blueprint says.

“The environment of dialogue is better than it has been. At the same time, we are seeing unfortunate incidents of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Karzai declared.

Karzai was apparently referring to an assassination attempt last week against Asadullah Khalid, the director of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, who was wounded by a suicide bomber. Karzai charged that the attack was plotted in Pakistan but claimed the Taliban weren’t involved.

“They (terrorists) don’t want us, the governments, to get together and be able to lead the nations to peace,” Zardari said.

The “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” also calls for the two governments to work with the United States on the terms and conditions for removing from a U.N. sanctions list “Taliban leaders willing to engage in peace talks” so they could have “safe passage” for negotiations.

The sanctions include a travel ban and an asset freeze and apply to separate U.N. lists for al Qaida and the Taliban.

Diplomats at the United Nations said that negotiations have been underway on streamlining procedures involving the Taliban list, which was separated from the al Qaida list last year.

An individual only can be removed by a consensus decision of all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council. Moscow occasionally has used that provision to resist Kabul’s de-listing requests, trying to force an extension of U.N. sanctions to Islamists fighting for independence in Russia’s Republic of Chechnya, said a former Afghan official familiar with the issue. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the Afghan government.

The Afghan government has been pressing for changes to the consensus requirement in a bid to limit challenges to de-listing Taliban leaders prepared to discuss a peace deal, he said. But those changes would have to be approved by the full Security Council, and it is unlikely that Russia will accept them.

Under the current system, the 132 Afghans on the Taliban list can be granted temporary exemptions from the travel ban. That provision has allowed several former senior Taliban officials who switched to the government side to travel in recent years to Saudi Arabia to explore peace talks and abroad for medical treatment.

A temporary exemption would allow Shahbuddin Delawar, a senior Taliban political figure, to fly to Paris next week for a conference with other Afghans, including former members of the Northern Alliance, a guerrilla coalition that battled the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said this week that the insurgents would send representatives to the conference “to convey our demands to the world, explain our policies and share our sentiments with the delegates.”

The sanctions also have been laxly enforced. U.S., German, Pakistani and Qatari officials apparently looked the other way when Taliban representatives based in Pakistan traveled to Germany last year, and Qatar this year, for secret consultations with U.S. officials as part of an Obama administration effort to kick-start direct talks with the Karzai government. That effort collapsed when the Taliban pulled out in March.

The new peace plan would end such breaches. It requires that insurgent leaders willing to participate in peace talks be removed entirely from the U.N. list during the first half of next year as one in a series of “concrete steps to initiate a formal process of direct negotiations” that would be held in the second half of 2013.

U.S. officials continued to decline to comment on the new plan, although privately several acknowledged its existence.

The plan was drafted by Karzai and his inner circle in close cooperation with Pakistan and was delivered last month to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, according to a person familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity because of its sensitivity.

The plan, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, diminishes the U.S. role in the peace process, although Washington still would have considerable input, including shaping the terms for initiating the direct negotiations.

Pakistan, however, assumes a pivotal role, reflecting the widespread belief that the Pakistani army exerts significant influence with insurgent leaders based along the country’s border with Afghanistan. By taking over the effort to arrange direct contacts between the Karzai government and Taliban leaders, Pakistan would help select insurgent negotiators.

The proposal, however, is fraught with numerous potential pitfalls. They include a refusal to participate by all Taliban leaders, who have consistently rejected direct talks with Karzai until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

Moreover, there is no mention of the Haqqani network, the most ruthless and effective militant group, which was placed on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations in September and whose leaders allegedly maintain close ties to Pakistan’s top intelligence service.

The new plan is likely to overshadow talks on the withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops by the end of 2014 that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is to hold in Kabul, where he arrived Wednesday on an unannounced visit.

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