ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Afghan president met Saturday with a Pakistani cleric linked to Taliban insurgents, a meeting that marked the first public contact between an Afghan official and members of the Afghan Taliban's support network in Pakistan in Afghanistan's bid to bring the militant movement to the negotiating table.
The meeting between President Hamid Karzai and the cleric was held in Islamabad said the cleric and Afghan officials, and shows how far the Afghan president is willing to go to open contact with the insurgent leaders.
The Taliban leaders are widely believed to be based in Pakistan with some level of protection by the country's security forces. The U.S. and Afghanistan increasingly see negotiating with the Taliban as the only way to end the more than ten years of warfare in Afghanistan and allow American troops to leave the country without it falling further into chaos.
Speaking to The Associated Press, the cleric, Maulana Samiul Haq, said Karzai asked for his help in bringing the militant movement's leadership into peace negotiations and to help establish contacts with the Taliban leadership. Haq said he told Karzai that he would help in the "noble cause" as long as it was clear what was wanted from the Taliban. Karzai was in Pakistan on a trip to gain the country's cooperation in the nascent peace process.
"I told him to take steps to gain some confidence of the Taliban. 'They do not trust you,'" Haq said he told Karzai. "I told him that if you take a clear position on what you can offer the Taliban, and what you want from the Taliban, God willing, I will contribute in this noble cause."
Hamed Elmi, deputy spokesman for Karzai's office, confirmed the meeting took place.
Haq runs a large seminary where many of the insurgent leaders once studied and reportedly still provides recruits for the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. He is known in some circles as the "Father of the Taliban," but it's unclear how much sway he has currently with the movement.
Karzai met Haq in an Islamabad hotel, not his seminary closer to the Afghan border where he regularly preaches the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan to thousands of students.
Karzai's trip reinforces the centrality of Pakistan to the peace process.
Pakistan is seen as key because much of the Taliban leadership is believed to be based in the country, and the government has historical ties with the group. But Islamabad has always denied Taliban leaders are using its territory and rejected allegations that the Pakistani government has maintained its links to the group, frustrating Afghan and American officials who say Pakistan is not aggressively going after the terror group.
Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as its allies against the influence of its regional enemy, India and is believed to be trying to use its influence with the group to limit India's future power in Afghanistan.
Karzai met Thursday and Friday with Pakistan's civilian and military leaders to ask for their help in bringing the Taliban leadership to the table and ending the conflict that has wracked his country for years.
But there was little sign of progress. Pakistan said it was "preposterous" to think Islamabad could deliver Taliban chief Mullah Omar, a cleric widely believed to be hiding somewhere in the border area with Afghanistan.
Since its inception, the peace process has been beset by false hopes, mistrust and the competing interests of the main players: Afghanistan, the United States, the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan.
Afghan and Pakistani officials have complained about being sidelined in the peace process after the Taliban said they were opening an office in Qatar and were talking to the Americans. Publicly, the Afghan Taliban says it will not talk to Karzai, who they maintain is an illegitimate "puppet leader."
During Karzai's three-day trip to Pakistan, he held a number of meetings with political and religious figures in an attempt to push forward the peace process.
An aide to another hardline Islamist cleric, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, also said he met Saturday with the Afghan leader.
Karzai also met a delegation of a pro-Taliban Pakistani political party, Jamiat Ulema Pakistan. The party's seminaries in Pakistan recruited and trained Taliban militants who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Senator Maulana Ghafoor Haidri led the delegation and said the meeting took place on Thursday.
He said he welcomed Karzai's peace efforts, and promised him his party's support in ending the war.