Islamabad: Pakistan Army’s COAS has made reconciling warring factions in Afghanistan a top priority, military officials and Western diplomats say, the newest and clearest sign yet that Islamabad means business in promoting peace with the Taliban.
General Ashfaq Kayani is backing dialogue partly due to fears that the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 could energise a resilient insurgency straddling the shared frontier, according to commanders deployed in the region.
“There was a time when we used to think we were the masters of Afghanistan. Now we just want them to be masters of themselves so we can concentrate on our own problems,” said a senior Pakistani military officer stationed in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt that hugs the Afghan border.
“Pakistan has the power to create the environment in which a grand reconciliation in Afghanistan can take place,” he said, speaking in the gritty town of Wana, about 30 km (20 miles) from Afghanistan. “We have to rise to the challenge. And we are doing it, at the highest level possible.”
On December 7, Kayani hammered home his determination to support a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan at a meeting of top commanders at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
“He (Kayani) said Afghan reconciliation is our top priority,” said a Pakistani intelligence official, who was briefed about the meeting.
Major progress with Kayani’s help could enable U.S. President Barack Obama to say his administration managed to sway Pakistan – often seen as an unreliable ally – to help achieve a top U.S. foreign policy goal.
Afghan officials, who have long suspected Pakistan of funding and arming the Taliban, question whether Kayani genuinely supports dialogue or is merely making token moves to deflect Western criticism of Pakistan’s record in Afghanistan.
Pakistan backed the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is seen as a crucial gatekeeper in attempts by the U.S. and Afghan governments to reach out to insurgent leaders who fled to Pakistan after their 2001 ouster.
Relations between Taliban commanders and Pakistan’s security establishment have increasingly been poisoned by mistrust, however, raising questions over whether Kayani’s spymasters wield enough influence to nudge them towards the table.
Nevertheless, diplomats in Islamabad argue that Pakistan has begun to show markedly greater enthusiasm for Western-backed attempts to engage with Taliban leaders. Western diplomats, who for years were sceptical about Pakistani promises, say Islamabad is serious about promoting stability in Afghanistan.
“They seem to genuinely want to move towards a political solution,” said an official from an EU country. “We’ve seen a real shift in their game-plan at every level. Everyone involved seems to want to get something going.”