ISLAMABAD – Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has appealed the Taliban and all other warring groups including Hizb-i-Islami to participate in an intra-Afghan peace and reconciliation process and talk directly to Kabul.

Gilani made the first-ever public appeal to Afghan militant groups on Friday in response to a request President Hamid Karzai made on Feb 21, and it was a clear sign that Pakistan was gearing up to supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation in the neighbouring country.

In a statement issued by the prime minister’s media office, he said, “I would like to appeal to the Taliban leadership as well as to all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-i-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace.” “It is now time to turn a new leaf and open a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan. It is time to now combine the strengths of the Afghan people in a true spirit of our noble religion  Islam and in accordance with the glorious traditions of the Afghans to build peace and bring prosperity to Afghanistan,” the statement read.

The appeal is significant as it urges, among others, the leaders of the Afghan Taliban to enter direct peace negotiations with the Kabul government. Pakistan is understood to enjoy strong influence over the Taliban, who are predominantly Pushtoon by race and are mostly from Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan and therefore have blood, cultural and trade relations with the Pushtoon population living in Pakistan.

The momentum for a US-led peace initiative has been growing, especially with the Taliban’s setting up a political office in Qatar. And the group has said it would prefer to negotiate with the United States, which has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than the weak Afghan government. This trend has triggered concern in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that both the prime stakeholders could be sidelined in the peace talks. So both nations are likely making efforts to remain central to the process.

PM Gilani further said: “Afghanistan is a brotherly country, close neighbour, with which Pakistan has multiple bonds of affinity. We value, deeply, our friendly and brotherly relations with the people of Afghanistan.

Pakistan wishes to have the best of relations with Afghanistan. Stability, peace and national reconciliation in Afghanistan is indeed critical for regional peace and stability. We are mindful of the importance of ensuring that the processes of peace and reconciliation succeed and thus contribute to the welfare and well-being of the Afghan people.”

Gilani stressed that a sovereign and independent Afghanistan, well on the road to a peaceful and prosperous future, is indeed critical for Pakistan and for our region, as a whole. “It is in this context that Pakistan has been supportive of all efforts to promote peace, national reconciliation and development. I am happy to state that our relations with Afghanistan have witnessed important positive developments at all levels during the recent years.”

PM declared Pakistan firmly believes that respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity as well as adherence to the principles of non-intervention and non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan are of critical importance.

“We also believe that the process of national reconciliation must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. It is imperative to promote an intra-Afghan consensus for a durable political settlement that accords with the aspirations of the people of Afghanistan, as a whole.”

The statement said that President Hamid Karzai in a statement on February 21 had appealed to Pakistan to support the peace process in Afghanistan. “This is an important statement and Pakistan is duty bound to respond positively to the appeal of President Karzai.”

Gilani said: “Pakistan has always held that there is no military solution to the problems of Afghanistan. We have also stated that it is important to create conditions conducive for a grand intra-Afghan settlement, based on national reconciliation that involves the Afghan people without any distinction.”

“It is our sincere hope that the Taliban leadership, Hizb-i-Islami and all other Afghan political leaders will respond positively to my appeal and agree to enter into direct negotiations in the framework of an intra-Afghan process for reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan,” he added.

The PM resolved that Pakistan, on its part, will support such an authentic Afghan process and is prepared to do whatever it can for its success. “I would like to appeal to the international community to support, fully, national reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan. We are appreciative of the important initiative taken by President Hamid Karzai and wish the intra-Afghan process every success”.

Online adds: Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) on Friday lauded the appeal by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to Afghan groups for joining Afghan peace process.

Head of HIA Political Affairs Dr Ghairat Baheer said that it has also proposed intra-Afghan dialogue, which is the only solution to end Afghan war. He said in a statement that Hizb-e-Islami wants Afghans should hold talks without any interference from others and Prime Minister Gilani’s statement is similar to the group’s old stand.

He hoped that other Afghan groups will also give positive response to the Pakistani PM’s statement. He said instability in Afghanistan directly affects Pakistan and peace in Afghanistan will have positive impact on Pakistan.