Musharraf-Karzai feud comes under spotlight in Turkey
Apr 27, 2007 - 12:25:05 PM

Islamabad/Kabul, April 27 - Seven months after a frosty encounter in Washington, Presidents Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan will be under pressure to end their feuding and harmonize efforts in the war against terror when they meet Sunday in Ankara.

Tensions between the supposedly aligned neighbours reached new heights last week when troops exchanged fire by the border during the erection of a protective security fence by Pakistani soldiers against militants crossing both ways.

But for months, two of the US' key allies in the war on terror have been engaged in a war of words that often makes no attempt to mask feelings of contempt.

'He is like an ostrich with his head buried in the sand,' Musharraf said of Karzai during a US television interview in September. Hours earlier, the two leaders had stood tensely either side of US President George W. Bush, avoiding each other's gaze and failing to shake hands.

Karzai acknowledged before the meeting that 'Afghanistan cannot be peaceful and prosperous without the best of relations with Pakistan'.

But in the weeks that followed, he increasingly lapsed into near-hysterical outbursts and public accusations that Pakistan 'still hasn't given up the hope of making us slaves'.

He has claimed that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is in hiding with the intelligence service in 'the neighbouring country' and hinted that Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden may not be far away. Islamabad says it has no evidence that either man is on its territory.

Both presidents are highly dependent on Washington's continued political and financial patronage. Faced with the prospect of their trilateral alliance unravelling, they accepted the offer of Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to mediate and help cool relations.

'That the two neighbours need third-party mediation to resolve their differences indicates the extent of the present trust deficit,' the Pakistani daily The Nation commented earlier this week.

There are also other issues such as the planned repatriation by Islamabad of some three million Afghan refugees who have lived in Pakistan for years.

But the core problem is the attacks on coalition forces and Afghan troops by Taliban militants operating from Pakistan's mountainous tribal region by the border.

The sides accuse each other of slacking in the fight against the Taliban. Karzai has suggested that Pakistan's ISI intelligence service is aiding them.

With the approach of the two-day Ankara meeting, the Afghan leader seemed intent on containing his outrage. At a recent public appearance he declined to answer questions about Pakistan or the relationship with Musharraf.

Meanwhile, whatever his current feelings towards his counterpart, the Pakistani leader presented a suitably conciliatory front before embarking Sunday on a four-nation European tour ending in Turkey.

'I am going to meet President Hamid Karzai with the hope that the ground realities will be understood and we will reach a conclusion to reduce the tension in the relations of the two countries,' he said.

But he also intended to have words about the stream of invective from the Afghan side.

'Afghan leaders, including Hamid Karzai, have been levelling accusations against Pakistan. These need to be stopped. There is no reality in them,' Musharraf told reporters.

As evidenced by a flurry of recent visits by top US officials to the countries, Washington is keenly aware that it cannot allow either the partnership to break-up or the key issue of stabilising the border to slip from view.

'If we weren't concerned about what was happening along the border, I wouldn't be here,' US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said at a meeting with Musharraf in Rawalpindi in February.

Meanwhile, the squabble about overall responsibility for the resurgence of the Taliban continues at all levels.

Islamabad insists that the radical Islamic militia is a homegrown problem of Afghanistan and that Pakistan is going to great lengths to help bail its neighbour out of trouble.

In a clear reference to Pakistani militants that also fight against his troops, Karzai in December retorted that the insurgents behind the violence in his country were not real Afghan Taliban but 'strangers ... using their beard and turban'.

Many observers of the conflict in Afghanistan predict that 2007 will be a decisive year.

For now, the outcome of the meeting in Turkey will signal whether the neighbours can revitalize their combined struggle against terrorism and extremism. This, Musharraf stressed in his 2005 autobiography, must be fought 'with full vigour, perfect coordination, and complete cooperation'.

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