Gilani leaves for Afghanistan

Islamabad: Peace talks with the Taliban, trade and security would be high on the agenda during a meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in the Afghan capital Kabul.

Gilani embarked on a crucial visit along with the heads of the powerful army and intelligence agency ISI against the backdrop of reports that Turkey was working to facilitate Pakistan and Afghanistan`s efforts to reconcile with Taliban.

It is unusual that Pakistan`s powerful trio are visiting Afghanistan at the same time and the tour comes in the background of strained ties between Islamabad and Washington.

Gilani is making the day-long visit to Kabul at the invitation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Pakistan`s government will extend its "full backing" to the transition process in Afghanistan, which should be "Afghan-owned", Gilani told reporters at the Chaklala military airbase before his departure.

He said he would discuss with Karzai the regional situation, particularly in the wake of the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Asked about the significance of the military leadership accompanying him to Kabul, Gilani said this was intended to signal that the "entire nation and all stakeholders were on the same page regarding Afghanistan".

Pakistan wants a stable, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan and would like to help the country resolve all its issues, he said.

Besides army chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and ISI head Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Gilani was accompanied by Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar and Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir.

This is Gilani`s second visit to war-torn Afghanistan since December.

Days ahead of the visit, Ibrahim Kalin, a close aide to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, said his country is working to open a political office for the Taliban in Istanbul.

"It`s being negotiated right now," Kalin told the Hurriyet daily.

Turkey, which has hosted several rounds of talks to improve ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has indicated that it is open to the establishment of a diplomatic presence for Taliban to facilitate the end of the war in Afghanistan.

An unnamed Pakistani official, speaking during a visit by President Asif Ali Zardari to Ankara on Thursday, told the media that Pakistan would back such a plan.

As the US moves to gradually withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan is jockeying for a key role in the transition process in the neighbouring country.

President Karzai`s strained relations with the US administration have given a boost to Pakistan`s efforts, observers say.

Sources said Gilani and Karzai are expected to discuss the launch of a strategic dialogue during their meeting.

The new Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement will also be discussed in their talks, Foreign Office spokesperson Tehmina Janjua said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday discussed the prospects of a political settlement in Afghanistan during a telephonic conversation with Gilani.

"Both leaders discussed the Prime Minister`s forthcoming visit to Kabul…and the prospects of a political settlement to pave the way for the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan," an official statement said.