ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani clerics threatened Tuesday to boycott a peace conference slated to be held in Kabul after disputes with a visiting Afghan delegation, underlining the persistent distrust that has long marred the relationship between the two countries.
Both sides have pledged to step up cooperation in an effort to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban to end over a decade of war in Afghanistan. But the dispute between the clerics illustrates how hard that may be in practice.
The team of eight Afghan clerics was in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, on a seemingly simple mission to finalize plans for a conference of religious scholars in Kabul next month meant to denounce suicide attacks and other forms of violence in the name of Islam.
The two governments announced the plan for the conference in November as a sign of improving relations.
But the talks that ended Monday seemed to do more to highlight longstanding disputes, especially over the Taliban.
Pakistan helped the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, partly as way to counter the influence of Islamabad's archenemy, India, in the country. Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of maintaining ties to the group — an allegation denied by Islamabad.
Many analysts agree that the Pakistani military continues to view the Taliban as an important counterweight to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, which is seen as too close to India.
Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, head of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, accused the visiting Afghan clerics of trying to use the upcoming conference to denounce the Taliban and elicit support for the Afghan government. He insisted the Taliban be invited to the event to advance the peace process.
"During yesterday's talks, we felt that they want to invite us to Kabul for next month's conference to get an edict against the Taliban and to issue a statement in favor of Hamid Karzai," said Ashrafi, who led Pakistan's five-member delegation.
He accused the Afghan clerics of being too close to the government and said they announced plans to hold the conference in Kabul on March 10 without the explicit consent of the Pakistanis on the date. Ashrafi, who is seen as close to Pakistan's security establishment, threatened his side would boycott the meeting because of these differences.
A member of the Afghan delegation, Aminullah Muzafery, painted the meeting in a more positive light. He said the two sides agreed the conference would be held in Kabul in March and would focus on how to bring peace and security to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But he made clear that they could not invite the Taliban to the meeting.
"We asked them (the Pakistani clerics) that if the conference was in Islamabad, would you invite Hakimullah Mehsud?" said Muzafery, referring to the head of the Pakistani Taliban militant group that is at war with the Pakistani government.
"They said that would not be possible, so we told them that if that is not possible, how would it be possible for us to invite anyone from the (Afghan) Taliban to our conference in Kabul?" said Muzafery.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have focused their fight on different enemies. The Afghan Taliban have carried out attacks against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani Taliban have focused on fighting in Pakistan.
Despite the clash between the clerics, there has been some progress in improving relations between the two countries in recent months.
Pakistan has released over two dozen Taliban prisoners in an attempt to facilitate the stuttering peace process with the militant group — complying, at least partially, with a longstanding demand by Kabul.
But the prisoner release has also caused friction with Kabul — and Washington — which are both frustrated that Pakistan is not monitoring the whereabouts and activities of the former inmates. They are worried the prisoners may simply rejoin the insurgency.
Faiez reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report from Islamabad.