Pakistan's foreign minister warned Afghanistan on Friday against having "ridiculous" expectations of what Islamabad could do to help Taliban peace negotiations, as talks between the two countries on the process ended in apparent acrimony.
The minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said it was "preposterous" to think that Pakistan could deliver Taliban chief Mullah Omar to the negotiating table as Afghanistan has asked in the past — despite the Pakistani government's alleged ties to the group.
The public comments were unusually harsh for the diplomatic world where such quarrels usually play out behind closed doors. The foreign minister's words demonstrated the depth of the frustration between the neighboring countries as the war in Afghanistan slogs into its eleventh year.
Her words signaled a setback for a peace process that the United States is strongly promoting as a way to end the Afghan conflict and allow it to withdraw most of its combat troops by 2014 without the country further descending into chaos.
Pakistan is seen as key to the process because much of the Taliban leadership, including Omar, is believed to be based in the country, and the government has historical ties with the group. Analysts say Pakistan can either help the talks or act as a spoiler.
But Islamabad has always denied Taliban leaders are using its territory and rejected allegations that the Pakistani government has maintained its links to the group, frustrating Afghan and American officials who say Pakistan is not aggressively going after the terror group.
It's unclear whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked Pakistan for help getting to Omar during his current visit to Islamabad, and he made no public mention of the cleric. But he has called on Pakistan in the past to facilitate contact with the insurgent group's leaders.
Leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran held a three-way summit in Islamabad over the past two days that focused on Taliban peace talks, including steps Pakistan could take to help the process, and other regional issues. The summit ended Friday.
However, Khar indicated her government was still uncertain on exactly what Afghanistan wanted, saying "they have not conveyed that clarity to us."
Karzai also seemed to indicate the process going forward was uncertain.
"What we need now is to formulate a policy that is actionable and implementable, and actually act upon it," Karzai said at a press conference featuring Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khar's comments came as she spoke to reporters after the press conference.
The foreign minister cautioned against Kabul expecting too much in terms of Pakistan providing access to the Taliban's leaders.
"If you have unrealistic, almost ridiculous expectations, then you don't have common ground to begin with," said Khar.
Khar said that any expectation that Pakistan can deliver the Taliban's chief for talks is "not only unrealistic, but preposterous."
Many analysts believe Pakistan has maintained links with the Taliban because it is seen as a key ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, especially in countering the influence of Islamabad's neighbor and archenemy, India. Pakistan helped the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
That history has contributed to the tense relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ties were strained further last year when a suicide bomber assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul. He had been serving as Afghanistan's envoy to Taliban peace talks, and Afghan officials accused Pakistan of playing a role in the killing — allegations it denied.
Asked about reports that the most recent discussions between Karzai and Pakistani officials were confrontational, Khar said, "The talks were very, very useful, and if they are hard, that is fine."
"We need to have some hard talks," she said.
There have been some signs that momentum for Taliban peace talks has been growing.
The Taliban are setting up an office in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in the first step toward formal negotiations. Also, the Obama administration is considering releasing five top Taliban leaders from the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay as a starting point for talks.
But the process has also been riddled with rumor and uncertainty.
Karzai initially resisted the US-backed move by the Taliban to set up a political office in Qatar because he felt the Afghan government had been sidelined and not kept fully apprised of the process of getting an office established. He said he preferred Saudi Arabia, and members of the Afghan government's peace council have said that while the political office might be in Qatar, actual talks could take place in Saudi Arabia or another location.
Tension between Pakistan and the US has also complicated the process, especially following American airstrikes in November that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops at two Afghan border posts.