Pak Army strives to secure central Afghan role
* Agreeing to include Pakistani military and intelligence officials in peace commission gives Pakistan’s security establishment a formal role in any talks with Afghan Taliban
ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani military is scrambling to shore up ties with Afghanistan to ensure a central role in a negotiated settlement of the conflict as the beginning of a US military withdrawal draws closer.
Uneasy neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan took an important step last weekend, agreeing to include Pakistani military and intelligence officials in a commission seeking peace with the Taliban, giving Pakistan’s security establishment a formal role in any talks.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been fraught for decades largely because Pakistan has seen successive Afghan governments as too close to India.
Pakistan’s military has had long-running ties to the Afghan Taliban and has repeatedly said that the road to a settlement of the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan runs through Islamabad.
It has in the past frowned upon efforts by Kabul to independently launch dialogue with the Taliban and is unlikely to countenance a similar outreach by Washington to the insurgent group without its involvement.
In recent months, Pakistan has sought to improve relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the United States begins its withdrawal in July and regional powers including India jostle for influence.
“This is part of General Kayani’s relentless outreach to President Karzai ever since the Obama administration announced withdrawal plans,” said C Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian foreign affairs expert.
Mohan said Karzai - who has often blamed Pakistan for fueling the insurgency in his country - had responded to the Pakistani military overtures because he saw Pakistan as his hope for survival once the United States leaves.
“Karzai is looking to his political future after the US withdrawal and he has asked for ‘Pindi’s help to find a way to work things out with the Taliban,” he added, referring to Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Feelers have gone out between the Afghan government and Taliban sympathisers, although no formal peace process has begun. At the same time, Afghanistan and Pakistan have turned to each other when their own relations with the United States are strained.
US ties with Karzai have soured since his election was called into question and over corruption. Relations with Pakistan have suffered over covert US actions, including drone attacks that Washington says are necessary to hunt down al Qaeda and the Taliban. Above all, driving the flurry of diplomacy is the worry that the United States will leave Pakistan to clean up the mess after it leaves, just as it did following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
“As we’re coming to the end game, it’s created a sense of urgency for an opening for all sides to come back to the table,” said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for a national daily.
But the question, he said, is whether the younger generation of Taliban commanders is war-weary or war-hardened, and how much authority supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar retains over them.
That uncertainty calls into question how much sway Pakistan itself has over the militants, given its ostensible abandonment of them in 2001 after an American ultimatum.
Complicated ties: Pakistan’s once close relationship with the Taliban- it was one of only three countries to recognise the regime toppled by the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks - has become more complicated.
“The Taliban are not a manageable force anymore. The blowback that has happened in Pakistan, the whole insurgency. They’re really worried about the emboldening of characters on their side of the border,” said Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director for the global intelligence firm STRATFOR.
“They don’t want the Talibanisation of Afghanistan,” he said, referring to Pakistani leaders. One scenario that Pakistan is working towards is a coalition government - perhaps similar to the one in Iraq - that sees the Taliban embedded in a political process that grants them a major say, but prevents them from taking over entirely, Bokhari said. reuters