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Afghan foreign minister upbeat on Pakistan ties

September 25, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — Afghanistan’s foreign minister was upbeat Tuesday about his country’s often-acrimonious relations with its neighbor following Pakistan’s release of a former Taliban deputy leader, a move Kabul had long sought to spur peace talks with the rebels.

Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of supporting the anti-government insurgency that threatens the fragile authority of President Hamid Karzai despite the presence of tens of thousands of U.S.-led forces.

But Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul said the release Saturday of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is the first signal that Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is keeping his promise made in a meeting with Karzai a month ago to cooperate with Afghanistan.

Kabul has sought Baradar’s release since he was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 after holding secret peace talks with the Afghan government. Afghanistan viewed the arrest as an attempt to sabotage the peace effort.

But Pakistan is increasingly worried that further instability in Afghanistan could make it more difficult to fight Islamic militants at home as the U.S. prepares to withdraw most of its combat forces from the country by 2014.

Rassoul said that Sharif’s primary aim is to revive Pakistan’s economy, and for that he needs to improve security, which requires working with Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism and extremism.

“I’m more optimistic than in the past for the future of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Rassoul told the Asia Society. “There’s been a lot of up and down in the past. I cannot be sure, but I have more hope now.”

Rassoul is in New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. His address Tuesday was closely watched — not just for his views on the outlook for Afghanistan but because he is considered a likely contender to succeed Karzai.

Rassoul, a former national security adviser, batted away questions on whether he would run in the April 2014 elections. He said everyone would find out once the Oct. 6 deadline for candidates to register was past.

Pakistan’s change of heart in releasing Baradar comes amid a renewed push to help strike a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government before the U.S. withdraws. Karzai has urged Pakistan to ensure that Baradar, who remains in Pakistan under tight security, is accessible to an Afghan peace council that is tasked with negotiating with the Taliban.

“We know that there are among the Taliban, maybe not the majority, those people who want to enter peace. They are fed up with war,” Rassoul said. “They know they cannot win and are used by other countries to fight in Afghanistan,” he said — apparently referring to Pakistani support of the rebels.

The foreign minister played down fears that a political deal to stop the fighting that has killed more than 90 U.S. troops this year and hundreds of Afghan security forces and civilians, could lead to a future government with Taliban participation that would undercut women’s rights and individual freedoms.

Rassoul said those who seek peace and enter politics would have to abide by the Afghan constitution.

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