Pakistan seeks role as mediator in possible Taliban-Afghanistan peace talks

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A15

LAHORE, PAKISTAN -- 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 United States.

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 neighboring 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 a sudden 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 is a very tricky situation."

U.S. officials are watching the evolution of Pakistani thinking with interest.

"What this is really about is whether the Pakistanis want to be part of the problem or part of the solution," said one American diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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. Echoing Karzai's comments about the Taliban being "sons of the soil," Zardari said that if insurgents are "reconcilable and want to give up their way of life, a democracy always welcomes them back."

The real key players

The key Pakistani players in this drama are not civilian leaders but the army and especially the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which once sponsored the Taliban, worked closely with the group when it ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and reportedly has continued to assist Taliban leaders in exile after the regime was overthrown by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001.

Rashid said the Afghan militants have been chafing under the Pakistani agency's efforts to control them. Other analysts said Pakistan's influence on the Taliban waned years ago, when the militia's leaders ignored Islamabad's pleas to spare the historic Bamiyan Buddha statues and to turn over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to the Americans.

But the analysts also said that with so many Taliban leaders and their families based in Pakistan, their relations with that nation are still close -- perhaps too close for officials in Kabul, who have seen their fledgling postwar democracy torn apart by renewed conflict and hundreds of terrorist attacks in the past several years.

In a newspaper interview with McClatchy published this week, a former Pakistani intelligence official described the Taliban as "big-hearted" and extremely loyal to Mohammed Omar, the movement's fugitive leader. He called Omar a reasonable, patriotic man who has no desire to ruin his country. "He's the only answer," the officer said.

Omar has vehemently rejected any suggestion of talks, and experts said the Taliban forces, which are now active in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, feel confident they can outlast the international military presence. Some analysts who favor talks said they doubt rank-and-file Taliban members could be weaned away from the cause with promises of jobs and money, a pillar of the U.S. and Afghan reintegration proposal.

Other Afghan insurgent leaders have hinted at a more open outlook. A close aide to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a fugitive former militia leader who now opposes the West, told a meeting in the Pakistani city of Peshawar this week that Pakistan can "play a major role" and even achieve a "breakthrough" by brokering an Afghan peace process.

A unique relationship

Several military experts said that although Pakistan's longtime relationship with the Taliban has put it in a unique position to promote negotiations, it could also undermine them. They said the country must prove to Afghanistan and the world that after years of trying to manipulate Afghan politics, it now wants to take a constructive and neutral stance.

"Pakistan needs to reassure Karzai and the Americans that it wants to play a very different role this time," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and analyst in Islamabad, the capital. "The Taliban should welcome Pakistan as an interlocutor if they are willing to compromise, but if the ISI overplays its hand, it could upset a very delicate situation."

Officials at the Pakistani foreign ministry could not be reached for comment on the issue this week, nor could army spokesmen. But some analysts said that by offering to help resolve the Afghan conflict, Pakistani officials are hoping chiefly to bolster the country's stature and security -- possibly at the expense of its next-door rival India, which has established a robust presence in Afghanistan.

"Pakistan's role could be crucial, but it will not do this for free. It will only facilitate these talks to protect its national interests," Rashid said. "It will demand its pound of flesh."

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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