ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan is sending a top official to the Afghan capital this weekend to try to mend fences with its uneasy neighbor, and hanging in the balance are U.S. efforts to arrange peace talks with the Taliban.
The trip comes roughly two weeks after the Taliban closed their newly opened political office in the Gulf state of Qatar following angry complaints from Afghanistan that the Islamic militant movement had set it up as a virtual rival embassy, with a flag and sign harkening back to the days they ruled the country.
The political office was part of a U.S. plan to launch peace talks with the Taliban to end the protracted war, with U.S. and other NATO combat troops scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year. But the talks ended before they could begin amid the uproar last month.
Pakistan, which had helped persuade the Taliban to agree to sit down with the Americans -- and possibly with the Afghans after that -- now contends that intransigence, suspicion and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reluctance to invite his political opponents at home to the negotiating table in Qatar are hobbling efforts to start the talks.
"[The Taliban] listen to us. We have some influence, but we can't control them," Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's special adviser on national security and foreign affairs, said in an interview ahead of his Kabul trip Saturday. "But [the Taliban] also say that the High Peace Council is not fully representative," Mr. Aziz said, referring to Mr. Karzai's 80-member negotiating team. "President Karzai should invite other people to join them."
Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council, said in an interview that if the Taliban were making broader negotiating team representation a condition to restarting talks, it "would be worth considering." But he was suspicious, wanting assurances first that the demand was the Taliban's, not Pakistan's.
Rancor and suspicion between Pakistan and Afghanistan run deep. Kabul blames Islamabad for not cracking down on Taliban militants who use the border area as a base to carry out attacks on Afghans and international forces in Afghanistan. For its part, Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of sabotaging peace efforts with its provocative statements, overtures to India and refusal to acknowledge the bloody war Islamabad is waging in its border regions.
In a dozen interviews with U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials, and analysts who have long followed Afghanistan, the consensus was that a negotiated peace is unlikely before next year's troop withdrawal and the election of a new Afghan president in April. They cited hurt feelings, bellicose statements, regional wrangling and Mr. Karzai's fear of being cut out of any peace deal that involves the United States. And they said there is a real risk of an Afghan civil war after 2014, when the last U.S. and NATO combat troops depart.
Although the sentiment among officials and analysts was that Pakistan could do more, there was also increasing wariness with what was seen as Mr. Karzai's strategy of belligerence in dealing with both Pakistan and the United States.
Last week, the Taliban closed their political office in Qatar, at least temporarily, to protest the fracas that erupted at its June opening over their use of the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the white flag that symbolized their five-year rule that ended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.