By Anwar Iqbal
WASHINGTON: Pakistan's involvement in a reconciliation agreement in Afghanistan is essential and the United States needs to further this developing partnership between the two neighbouring countries, Gen David Petraeus told his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
But the new US commander for Afghanistan also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had denied reports that he recently met a top leader of anti-Kabul network, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
"Pakistani involvement in some form of reconciliation agreement, I think that that is essential," Gen Petraeus told the committee's chairman Senator Carl Levin.
Senator Levin wanted the general to comment on recent media reports that Pakistani officials had approached the Karzai government with a proposal that includes delivering the Haqqani network, which US believes runs a major part of the insurgency in Afghanistan and is an ally of Al Qaeda, into a power-sharing arrangement.
"Clearly, we want to forge a partnership or further the partnership that has been developing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those countries are always going to be neighbours. And helping them develop a constructive relationship would be an important contribution," the general said.
But he also warned not to expect these recent contacts between Pakistan and Afghanistan to lead to an immediate reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.
"Now, whether that is possible, such an agreement, I think is going to depend on a number of factors that will play out over the course of the summer, including creating a sense among the Taliban that they are going to get hammered in the field and perhaps should look at some options," said the general.
On Sunday, both President Barack Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta also expressed scepticism about the likelihood that Taliban leaders would accept a proposal for reconciliation.
But President Obama also noted that the attempt to draw Afghanistan and Pakistan into a closer partnership was a useful step.
When the senator asked Gen Petraeus if he knew about a reported meeting between President Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, Gen Petraeus said Mr Karzai denied meeting any leader of the Haqqani Network.
"In talking to President Karzai in the vehicle on the way over here, he assured me that he has not met a Haqqani group leader, by the way in recent days or, I think, at any time," the general said.
On Saturday, Al Jazeera reported that President Karzai recently met Mr Haqqani to discuss a power-sharing agreement. The meeting was reportedly orchestrated by Pakistani intelligence and army officials, who want the Haqqani Network to be included in a new set-up in Afghanistan.
Dawn, however, reported on June 15 that Pakistani officials were indeed trying to broker a deal between the Afghan government and the Haqqanis, although the sources who spoke to Dawn did not confirm a meeting between President Karzai and Mr Haqqani.
US intelligence officials who spoke to the media noted that President Karzai would have little incentive to admit that such a meeting took place, if in fact it did. But they also cast doubt on the Al Jazeera report.
These officials, however, do not dispute press reports and say that the Pakistanis are attempting to broker a deal between the Haqqanis and the Afghan government. Instead, they disputed the notion that Mr Karzai could have had a face-to-face meeting with Mr Haqqani. One senior intelligence official pointed to Mr Karzai's heavy American security detail as an obstacle to such a meeting.
Gen Petraeus noted that in recent past lower and mid-level Taliban leaders had indeed sought to reintegrate with the Afghan government and there had been "more in recent days, small numbers here and there".
The general said that the reintegration decree that President Karzai approved on Tuesday would help codify this process.
"But whether or not very senior leaders can meet the very clear conditions that the Afghan government has laid down for reconciliation, I think, is somewhat in question. So in that regard, I agree with Director Panetta," he said.
When Senator John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked Mr Petraeus if he was concerned that the ISI continued to work with the Haqqani and other Taliban groups, the general said it was difficult to give a categorical answer to this question.
"What we have to always figure out with Pakistan is: are they working with the Taliban to support the Taliban or to recruit sources in the Taliban? And that's the difficulty, frankly, in trying to assess what the ISI is doing in some of their activities in Fata, in contacts with the Haqqani network, or the Afghan Taliban," he said.
"There are no questions about the longstanding lengths. Let's remember that we funded the ISI to build these organisations when they were the Mujahideen and helping to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan," he added.
"And so certainly, residual links would not be a surprise. The question is what the character of those links is and what the activities are behind them."