ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will need to walk a tightrope to secure its interests in US-backed reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan, at risk of being sidelined by the Taliban and the Kabul government, analysts say.
British and US newspapers have been awash with reports on the nature of peace efforts needed to end the nine-year Taliban insurgency and allow the 150,000 US-led Nato contingent in Afghanistan to withdraw. The Taliban have denied any talks are taking place, and Afghan and Pakistani experts on insurgent groups dismiss such reports as as Western propaganda.
But Pakistan is determined to ensure that an allied government is in power in Kabul once the United States and its allies have withdrawn their troops from from Afghanistan. Washington and Kabul agree there can be no peace in Afghanistan without cooperation from Pakistan, which has repeatedly offered to facilitate reconciliation efforts.
For 10 years, Islamabad has been America’s ally in the war, despite widespread public opposition and militant bomb attacks across the nuclear-armed country that have killed more than 3,740 people in three years.
But Pakistan is not trusted fully by either the Afghan and US governments, which accuse its powerful military of continuing to foster the Afghan Taliban it spawned during the 1980s resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan also share a large ethnic Pashtun population, which traditionally does not recognise the border drawn between the two countries in the British colonial era and from whom the bulk of the Taliban are drawn.
“We are in contact with all ethnic groups, not just Pashtuns, in Afghanistan,” said one Pakistani official on condition of anonymity. Yet Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said late last month that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had yet to brief the government on his plans. “It is not necessary that we’re in the loop at every stage or kept informed of all developments or meetings,” said the Pakistani official.
Pakistan considers Afghanistan a strategic asset, where a friendly government in Kabul can help offset the increasing power flexed by arch rival India. Hence its diplomatic recognition of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime. Afghan insurgents with rear bases in Pakistan’s tribal belt, which are subject to an escalating US drone war, criss-cross the porous border with ease.
The Afghan government’s High Council for Peace has included Pakistan, along with Iran and Saudi Arabia in the list of Muslim countries it has asked for assistance, according to its spokesman Mualavi Qeyamudin Kashaf. But Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of Pakistan’s foremost experts on militant groups, warns that Islamabad needs to confront its limitations. “We should be very careful. It is possible that we won’t get anything at the end of the day.
“Some Taliban commanders may not agree to a Pakistani role because they still believe Islamabad betrayed them by siding with the Americans after 9/11.”
Afghan analyst and former Taliban foreign ministry official, Waheed Mujda, agreed that Pakistan’s influence is in decline. “The Taliban are now almost an independent Islamic movement, supported by many Islamic groups in the world. Pakistan knows that it does not have the same level of influence over the Taliban that they once enjoyed,” he told AFP.
Pakistan also has to navigate the pressures from the United States. Keen to end the war and weaken the Taliban as much as possible, the US drone campaign has stepped up attacks in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Nato helicopters from Afghanistan have pursued militants into Pakistani territory. Pakistan will have to deal with whomever fills the power vacuum left by departing American troops.
“Pakistan cannot walk away from this neighbourhood,” said Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani analyst and author on the tribal belt. “America can think of an end game when they think of a draw down, but being neighbours, our priority should be to think of improving relationship with Afghanistan. For Pakistan, it will be a major challenge.”
Retired lieutenant general Talat Masood said he believes, for example, that Pakistan has no choice but protect itself from US pressure for an offensive in North Waziristan — a bastion of the Afghan Taliban and its allied Haqqani network. “The US wants to convince the Taliban that dialogue is perhaps the only solution… they (America) know our limitations (in terms of an offensive).”