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Pakistan diplomat in charm offensive in Afghanistan

KABUL: A senior Pakistani official held talks in Afghanistan on Sunday, inviting President Hamid Karzai to Islamabad in a charm offensive designed to improve strained relations and revive flagging peace efforts with the Taleban.
Foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz is the most senior member of Pakistan’s new government to visit Afghanistan and is expected to meet Karzai later on Sunday.
The new administration took office last month after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won historic elections, at a time when relations between Kabul and Islamabad are even frostier than normal.
“I have brought a message of cordiality and goodwill for Afghanistan,” Aziz told a news conference.
“The main purpose of my visit, as some of you may know, is to convey a formal invitation from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to President Karzai to visit Pakistan.”
International efforts to start talks with Taleban insurgents on ending 12 years of war are in disarray after the disastrous opening of a Taleban liaison office in Qatar last month.
The office was initially hailed as a first step toward a peace deal, but a furious Karzai slammed it as an unofficial embassy for a Taleban government-in-exile.
The scheduled departure next year of around 100,000 US-led foreign troops and Afghan presidential elections in April have lent renewed urgency to the quest for peace.
The West considers Pakistan’s support vital to achieving lasting peace with the Taleban in Afghanistan. But relations between the neighbors are mired in mutual distrust and accusations over Taleban and other Islamist militancy which plagues both countries.
“For us, a peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan,” said Aziz, calling for a “close relationship” and reiterating Islamabad’s support for an “Afghan-led” peace process with the Taleban.
Sharif has kept Pakistan’s foreign affairs portfolio under his own control but Aziz, who served as a minister in the 1990s, is effectively the foreign minister.
The Taleban have since claimed to have temporarily closed the Qatar office, blaming “broken promises” by the Afghan government and the United States.
Aziz denied perceptions held by many in Afghanistan that Pakistan controls the Taleban, given that its leaders have presumed sanctuary in Pakistan, and insisted Islamabad could only help bring about a deal and not impose one.
“We have some contacts with the Taleban because of the past but we don’t control them,” he told the news conference.
He said Pakistan had eased the movement of Taleban negotiators and released 26 Taleban detainees at the request of the Afghan government.
“In the future, if to this extent we are requested, we can play the same role but in appropriate time and in consultation with other interested parties,” he said.
In an unusually blunt remark, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul said that efforts on both sides to strengthen relations, fight terrorism and ignite peace talks “have not been successful.”
“I hope the new government of Pakistan will open a new chapter in Pakistan-Afghan relations,” he told the same press conference.