By Matthew Green
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - As the United States makes a fresh attempt to start talks with the Taliban, competing visions in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan over what an eventual peace process might look like have emerged as one of the biggest hurdles.
Washington's hopes of negotiating with the insurgents to stabilize Afghanistan before most foreign troops leave by the end of 2014 had appeared to achieve a breakthrough last week when the Taliban opened an office in the Qatari capital Doha.
But the process was plunged into uncertainty when Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to send negotiators to the Gulf state after the Taliban raised a flag at its new premises, infuriating the Afghan government and prompting frantic attempts by U.S. officials to resuscitate the planned dialogue.
While global attention has focused on the debacle in Doha, tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan - whose cooperation will be vital to any deal - have made the prospects of meaningful progress towards a settlement even less sure.
Since the Doha office was opened, Pakistani officials have made a series of comments suggesting that Karzai, who is due to step down at elections in April, 2014, is already irrelevant to what should be wide-ranging talks on Afghanistan's future.
"His expiry date has come," said a Pakistani government official, who is close to Pakistan's discussions with the U.S. and other allies on Afghanistan. "The principle is a fundamental overhaul."
Pakistan is in a position to influence the talks because its security forces backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and continue to serve as gatekeepers to insurgent commanders living on its territory.
While the government official's view does not reflect the public position of Pakistan, which has pledged to support the Afghan government's reconciliation drive on the basis of the existing Afghan constitution, it does provide a window into a strand of thinking within Islamabad's ruling establishment.
However, it is unusual for senior officials in the government to discuss Afghan policy in detail.
The view that Karzai is a hindrance to talks was reflected in comments made to Reuters by three senior Pakistani officials occupying key positions in the foreign ministry and the army, which holds sway over relations with Afghanistan, in recent months. Karzai was installed as president after U.S.-backed troops overthrew the Taliban government in 2001.
"Right now, Karzai is the biggest impediment to the peace process," a top Pakistani Foreign Ministry official told Reuters in March. "In trying to look like a savior, he is taking Afghanistan straight to hell."
The thrust of Pakistan's criticism is that Karzai is too erratic to handle negotiations. Pakistani officials also argue that the most important protagonists for any peace process are the United States, the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance, a group of Afghan ex-warlords who fought the Taliban in the 1990s and now wield significant influence in Kabul.
This view was laid out in detail in a front-page story published in Pakistan's privately owned Express Tribune newspaper after the Taliban office opened, quoting Pakistani military and diplomatic sources as saying Karzai had no place in any deal.
The sources described the Afghan president as "unstable" and a "poisonous roadblock."
"HOSTILE AND EVIL"
Afghan officials and commentators suspect that Pakistan's frustration with Karzai stems from its desire to ensure that any future government in Kabul overturns the Afghan president's policy of cultivating warmer ties with India, Pakistan's nuclear rival. They also maintain that Pakistan has backed the Taliban through the 12 years of war against U.S.-backed troops.
"We pleaded with Pakistan for peace, but Pakistan's policy and intentions towards Afghanistan have always been hostile and evil," said Bashir Bezhan, a Kabul-based political analyst.
Washington praised Pakistan last week for helping to nudge insurgents towards the negotiating table in Doha, a contrast with acrimonious exchanges in previous years over allegations that Pakistan continued to covertly support the Taliban.
Against this backdrop of suspicions of Pakistan, an attack by the Taliban on the presidential palace in Kabul on Tuesday cast fresh doubt on whether Karzai would be prepared to participate in peace talks.
U.S. President Barack Obama later called Karzai and the two agreed on the need for an Afghan-led peace process and to support the presence of the Taliban office in Doha, the White House said. But no date has been set for any negotiations.
Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry said Islamabad remained committed to supporting reconciliation in Afghanistan. "The official position of the government is to support an all inclusive, inter-Afghan dialogue," he said.
The Pakistani government official who is close to Islamabad's thinking on Afghanistan, said one possible way forward at Doha would be far-reaching talks akin to the conference held in the German city of Bonn in December, 2001, which laid the foundations of Karzai's administration.
The key players would be the United States, the Taliban and members of the Northern Alliance, who Pakistan has been carefully courting for more than a year - but not Karzai.
"It would be in a real sense a Bonn 2," the government official said. "Pakistan will have a ringside view...In the ring you'll have Americans and Afghans."
Such a view cuts a complete contrast with the position of Karzai's government, which believes the insurgents must lay down their arms, accept the constitution and find a role within the new Afghanistan that grew from the ashes of the Taliban theocracy toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
The "Bonn 2" proposal may, however, just be wishful thinking within Pakistan's military, which might see such a conference as a chance to promote its preferred factions.
There would also seem to be little appetite among Karzai's Western allies to go back to the drawing board in Afghanistan at a time when NATO countries are seeking to scale back their engagement.
The Afghan government declined to comment on any "Bonn 2" kind of meeting. Washington has repeatedly said the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution and U.S. officials said they were unaware of any proposal for a new Bonn-style conference.
For now, the United States is sticking to its plan to coax Karzai's government and the Taliban together in Qatar, even as the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain unresolved.
"In the Pakistani military's eyes, Karzai is a lame duck, irrelevant," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist with Pakistan' Dawn newspaper. "The problem is that his is the only Afghan government there is."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL, Warren Strobel in WASHINGTON; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)