Pakistan’s powerful army chief 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 US combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 could energize 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 30km from Afghanistan. “We have to rise to the challenge. And we are doing it, at the highest level possible.”
On Dec. 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 US President Barack Obama to say his administration managed to sway Pakistan — often seen as an unreliable ally — to help achieve a top US 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 US and Afghan governments to reach out to insurgent leaders who fled to Pakistan after their 2001 ouster.
However, relations between Taliban commanders and Pakistan’s security establishment have increasingly been poisoned by mistrust, 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 skeptical about Pakistani promises, say Islamabad is serious about promoting stability in Afghanistan.
“They seem to genuinely want to move towards a political solution,” an official from an EU country said. “We’ve seen a real shift in their game-plan at every level. Everyone involved seems to want to get something going.”
The army has ruled Pakistan for more than half its history and critics say generals have jealously guarded the right to dictate policy on Afghanistan, seeing friendly guerrilla groups as “assets” to blunt the influence of archrival India.
However, army attitudes towards former Islamist proxies have also begun to evolve due to the rise of Pakistan’s own Taliban movement, which has fought fierce battles in the tribal areas and launched suicide attacks in major cities.
Kayani seemed to signal that the army’s conception of its role in Pakistan and the region was changing in a speech to officers in Rawalpindi last month.
“As a nation we are passing through a defining phase,” Kayani said. “We are critically looking at the mistakes made in the past and trying to set the course for a better future.”
Kayani ordered Pakistan’s biggest offensive against the militants in 2009, pouring 40,000 troops into South Waziristan in a bid to decisively tip the balance against the growing challenge they posed to the state.