Pakistan should stop trying to influence affairs in Afghanistan, the opposition leader said on Tuesday, while admitting that the pro-Afghan Taliban policy he pursued when he was prime minister in the 1990s was a failure.
Nawaz Sharif's comments come as he tries to gain political traction and deflect criticism that his party is beholden to extremist elements. Just last week, he pushed the government to open talks with elements of the Pakistani Taliban, and the ruling party agreed to his proposal to hold a national conference on stopping terrorism.
The remarks also come as Pakistan tries to weigh in on reconciliation efforts between Afghanistan's government, the US and the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan's historical interest in Afghanistan is largely a result of its desire to assert itself in the region and attain a strategic advantage over archrival India.
In an interview with Pakistan's Dunya TV that aired yesterday and today, Sharif appeared to renounce a policy he pursued with vigor while twice prime minister in the 1990s.
Back then, Pakistan openly supported the Afghan Taliban movement as it pushed out other armed factions such as the Northern Alliance and gained control of Kabul.
"Pakistan should abandon this thinking that Pakistan has to keep influence in Afghanistan," said Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-N party.
"Neither will they accept influence, nor should the pro-influence-minded people here insist on it."
"Our policy in the past has failed. Neither will such a policy work in future. We have a centuries-old relationship, and we can maintain this relationship only when we remain neutral and support the government elected there with the desire of the Afghan people."
It was unclear where Sharif would stand on the reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. The role Pakistan would play will likely fall primarily to its military, which operates largely independent of the civilian government anyway and which could be instrumental in bringing some armed Afghan factions to the table.
Sharif's party, which controls the government of Punjab province but sits in opposition in the federal government, is considered more conservative and aligned with pro-Taliban parties than the national ruling Pakistan People's Party.
The PML-N has been criticized in recent months for not going after militant outfits in Punjab, a stance analysts say is driven by its reliance on banned militant groups to deliver key votes during elections. The frustration over the party's dawdling has grown more acute since a bombing at a popular Sufi shrine in Punjab's capital, Lahore, last week killed 47 people.