ISLAMABAD - The Afghan president appealed for Pakistan's help Thursday in negotiating a peace deal with Taliban militants ahead of a summit that will also include the leader of Iran.
The meetings in Islamabad come at a time when momentum for peace talks with the Taliban seems to be growing, even as all parties to a stuttering process marked by intense mistrust say that success in ending the 10-year war in Afghanistan is far from certain.
Afghan President Hamid Karzaiin an interview published Thursday that talks among the U.S, the Afghan government and the Taliban had taken place in the past month. If true, it would mark a significant development because till now the Taliban had said they would only negotiate with the Americans, maintaining Karzai was a puppet leader and that the movement was the legitimate ruler in Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied Karzai's comments that negotiations have already taken place, saying in a statement "the Taliban did not talk with the Kabul government anywhere."
Pakistan is regarded as a key player in any peace process because its historical ties with the Taliban and other insurgents mean Islamabad could help bring them to the table or be a spoiler. The Taliban leadership is widely believed to be based in Pakistan, and under some influence of the country's security establishment.
Iran, which also neighbors Afghanistan and Pakistan, is also important to the future stability of Afghanistan. In the past, it supported campaigns against the Taliban, a radical Sunni Muslim group opposed to the Shiites who make up a majority of Iran's population. But some reports have suggested Tehran Washington's archenemy also has supported the Taliban against U.S. troops.
The U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, but has been unable to defeat the Taliban, which once sheltered Osama bin Laden. Washington wants to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and try to ensure the country remains moderately stable.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been badly strained, but the meeting between Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari suggested that ties are improving. An Afghan statement said the leaders had agreed to restart a joint peace commission that was shelved after the assassination last year of Afghanistan's envoy to Taliban peace talks in Kabul.
Afghan officials had accused Pakistan of playing a role in the killing allegations it denied.
In a statement, Zardari said Karzai told the meeting Thursday that Pakistan's support "was critical to the success of Afghan owned and Afghan led peace process" and that both countries should cooperate for peace.
Earlier, Ismail Qasemyar, the international relations adviser to the Afghan-government appointed council for talks with the Taliban, said Karzai would ask Zardari to "put positive and constructive pressure over the leadership of the Taliban to come close and to come together to start intra-Afghan dialogue and a process of negotiation."
During his three-day trip, President Karzai is also scheduled to meet Pakistani clerics and politicians who are close to the Afghan Taliban in a bid to get their support for peace, including Maulana Samiul Haq, known as the spiritual father of the Taliban because he runs an Islamic seminary in northwestern Pakistan that has taught many of the group's leaders.
"This is a time when the Taliban are defeating Western forces in Afghanistan," Haq told The Associated Press. "A forceful stance by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran will bring peace and stability in this region by pushing out the foreign forces."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Islamabad in the late afternoon and met separately with Zardari. The two men discussed a proposed pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Iran to Pakistan, according to a statement from Zardari.
The U.S. opposes the initiative. It wants to isolate Tehran because of its nuclear program, and is threatening sanctions against Islamabad if the project goes ahead. Pakistan says it needs the gas to meet chronic industrial and domestic energy shortages.
On Friday, all three leaders will meet for talks likely to focus on the Afghan war.
Ahmadinejad's trip coincides with rising Western concerns after Iranian state TV broadcast pictures of the president overseeing what was described as the first Iranian-made fuel rod being inserted into a research reactor in northern Tehran. Tensions between Israel and Iran are also rising following an attack in India on an Israeli diplomat that Israel has blamed on Iran.