Afghan, Pakistani leaders eye peace deal in six months

The leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Monday they would work to reach a peace deal within six months, while throwing their weight behind moves for the Taliban to open an office in Doha.

Following talks hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari also urged the Islamists to join the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

But with neither the Taliban nor the United States at the talks, and the militants still refusing to talk to Kabul, analysts said the commitment by the three leaders risked being one-sided.

They had a private dinner on Sunday and then full talks on Monday at Cameron's Chequers country retreat near London, amid growing fears that a civil war could erupt when international troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.

"All sides agreed on the urgency of this work and committed themselves to take all necessary measures to achieve the goal of a peace settlement over the next six months," they said in a joint statement issued by Cameron's office.

"They supported the opening of an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the Taliban and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan as part of an Afghan-led peace process," the statement said.

Karzai had previously shunned the idea of a Taliban office in the Qatari capital because of fears that it would lead to the Kabul government being frozen out of talks between the United States and the Taliban.

The joint statement also said that the Afghan and Pakistani leaders had agreed arrangements to "strengthen coordination" of the release of Taliban detainees from Pakistani custody.

Afghan peace negotiators have welcomed Pakistan's release of dozens of Taliban prisoners in recent months, a move they believe could help bring militants to the negotiating table.

There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban.

The summit was the third trilateral meeting in a year following meetings in Kabul last July and New York in September -- but the first in which Pakistani and Afghan army and intelligence chiefs took part.

Cameron, whose country is the second biggest contributor of troops to Afghanistan with 9,000 still based there, appealed directly to the Taliban to join the reconciliation process.

"Now is the time for everyone to participate in a peaceful political process in Afghanistan," he told a press conference after the talks.

Karzai told the press conference he hoped in future to have "very close, brotherly and good neighbourly" relations with Pakistan, which has been regularly accused by both Kabul and Washington of helping to destabilise Afghanistan.

Support from Pakistan, which backed Afghanistan's 1996-2001 Taliban regime, is seen as crucial to peace after NATO troops depart -- but relations between the neighbours remain uneasy despite some recent improvements.

Zardari said it was in Islamabad's interests to support the initiative.

"Peace in Afghanistan is peace in Pakistan. We feel that we can only survive together," he said. "We cannot change our neighbourhood or our neighbours."

Pakistani political and security analyst Hasan Askari dismissed as "too ambitious" the prospect of securing in six months a settlement to end more than 11 years of war.

The lack of Taliban involvement in the talks was a particular problem, he said.

The Taliban in March 2012 suspended contacts with US representatives in Qatar over a potential prisoner exchange and opening of a liaison office in the Gulf state, and publicly refused to negotiate with Kabul.

Asked whether a peace deal was possible in six months, Askari told AFP: "I don't expect that, it would be a major upset of the calculation."

Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network said the timescale was "a bit optimistic", although it was encouraging that both countries accepted the urgency of the situation.

"I don't see a basis that could guarantee that it happens so quickly," he said. "Taliban have always refused to discuss with the Afghan government. There's a lot of groundwork to be done before reaching an agreement."

Meanwhile Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by local Taliban militants last year, said in a video message on Monday that she was "getting better day by day".

The 15-year-old, who underwent surgery at a British hospital at the weekend, said that "God has given me this new life, a second life" and vowed to continue campaigning for girls' education.