KABUL British Prime Minister David Cameron flew into Afghanistan on Saturday to try to inject momentum into stalled peace talks, but left empty-handed after the Afghan president said his country could break up if a deal was done with the Taliban.
Cameron, who hosted President Hamid Karzai for talks in February about Afghanistan's future, has cast himself as an honest broker able to use Britain's relations with Afghanistan's influential neighbour, Pakistan, to get the Taliban to talk peace.
Speaking at a joint news conference in Kabul after a visit to British troops in the southern province of Helmand, he said the moment to pursue peace had come.
"There is a window of opportunity and I would urge all those who renounce violence, who respect the constitution, who want to have a voice in the future prosperity of this country to seize it," he said.
His comments come barely a week after the United States revealed the Taliban were to open a long-anticipated office in Qatar, making a meeting with the Afghan state and the Taliban a possibility. Those talks collapsed within days after Karzai objected to the manner in which the office was opened, however, and Taliban militants later attacked central Kabul.
On Saturday, Karzai said he hoped peace talks could begin as soon as possible. But he complained about foreign peace plans, sounded a defiant note against the United States, and warned of the dangers of doing a deal with the Taliban.
SCEPTICAL OF PAKISTAN
He also made it clear he was sceptical of Pakistan's motives in the peace process.
"Any system that is imposed on us ... the Afghan people will reject," he told a news conference inside his palace. "Delivering a province or two to the Taliban will be seen by the Afghan people as an invasion of Afghanistan, as an effort from outside to weaken and splinter this country."
When a reporter asked Cameron why he was willing to talk to the Taliban at the same time as British soldiers were fighting the insurgents, Karzai praised the question.
A British source told Reuters Karzai remained "furious" about the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar this month replete with its own flag and plaque, symbols that he felt accorded the Taliban a degree of global legitimacy.
The Afghan leader suspended talks on a long-term security deal to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 Washington said it was ready to talk to the Taliban and the Qatar flap. Karzai accused the Americans of duplicity.
On Saturday, he said he had held a video conference with President Barack Obama to discuss the matter, and that the U.S. leader had told him he hoped a deal could be struck by October.
Karzai's response was ambiguous. "I noted and reminded him (Obama) that Afghanistan continues to hold its unchangeable principles. If these conditions are met, the nation of Afghanistan will definitely be ready to agree to a security agreement with the U.S.," he said.
Karzai's stance underlines a dilemma for the West.
As it prepares to pull its troops out next year, it is caught between wanting to safeguard its legacy in Afghanistan - improved women's rights and access to education among other things - and allowing the Karzai government to roll back some changes to pave the way for talks with the insurgents.
Britain is trying to magnify its diplomatic clout at the very moment it is reducing its contingent of some 7,000 troops.
Aides said Cameron was keen to boost political stability ahead of next year's presidential election, which he hopes will result in the first peaceful transition of power since 1901.
Karzai is not eligible to stand under the constitution and Cameron said he welcomed Karzai's "commitment to a democratic succession" after his second term expires.
Cameron flew on to Islamabad on Saturday evening for talks about Afghanistan with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Pakistan could play a major role in any peace process. Its security forces backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and continue to serve as gatekeepers to insurgent commanders living on its territory.
Cameron said he was working to try to persuade both countries they needed to cooperate, but said only "some" progress had been made.
Cameron also used his Afghan visit to reinforce the message that British troops really would be pulling out next year and that only limited financial and other aid would be made available to Afghan forces after that time.
Four hundred and forty-four British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
A senior military source had said earlier that Western troops would have to undertake follow-on missions after 2014 that could last up to five years.
But Cameron suggested no British soldiers would be involved.
"There will be no (British) combat troops after the end of 2014. British troops are coming home," he said.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Dylan Welch; Editing by Kevin Liffey)