Pakistan, which once sponsored Taliban forces but turned against them under American pressure in 2001, now hopes to play a role as a broker in proposed negotiations among Taliban leaders and the Afghan government, with support from the US.
As leaders of 60 countries meet in London on Thursday to discuss how to help Afghanistan stop its downward spiral into instability, the possibilities for reconciliation and talks with both Taliban leaders and foot soldiers will top the agenda.
Until recently, Pakistan had been on hostile terms with the neighbouring government in Kabul and had sought to distance itself from the problems of insurgency across the border, while struggling to curb a homegrown Taliban movement that has carried out dozens of bombings and suicide attacks in Pakistan in the past several years.
Now, however, Pakistani officials have taken interest in promoting peace in Afghanistan, a change analysts attribute to a combination of self-interest and fear. Pakistan, they say, hopes a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul that includes the Taliban would be friendlier to its interests; and it worries that if the Afghan conflict drags on, its domestic extremist problem will spin out of control.
But analysts said any overt mediation role by the Pakistani government could backfire for several reasons, including deep mistrust among Afghan leaders, unpredictable reactions by Pakistani militants, Taliban resentment of pressure from its former backers and unrealistic Pakistani expectations of Western gratitude.
“The crisis in Pakistan has created a big change in its thinking. The country is suffering enormously from the Pakistani Taliban, and this may be a way to get off the hook,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based expert on the Taliban and on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. “Pakistan still exerts some influence on the Afghan Taliban, but Kabul will be extremely wary of Pakistani bias. It’s a tricky situation.” US officials are watching the evolution of Pakistani thinking with interest.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Turkey this week, said there is an urgent need for peace talks. Zardari said that if insurgents are “reconcilable and want to give up their way of life, a democracy always welcomes them back.”
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