With talks accelerating between the Afghan government and portions of the Afghan Taliban leadership hiding in Pakistan, the Pakistani government appears to have been brushed aside, an exclusion that analysts warn could dramatically worsen Islamabad’s already fragile relationship with Washington and Kabul and jeopardize prospects for peace in Afghanistan.
A senior advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai indirectly confirmed Wednesday that some Afghan Taliban leaders based in Pakistan were in talks with the Afghan government. “The ones who have the power and the authority are not the ones who are here in Afghanistan, so you can conclude from that where they are from,” the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, a NATO official also speaking anonymously said that Western alliance troops have provided assistance to participants in the talks, including ensuring safe transit across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The official provided no other details of the role NATO played in aiding their travel.
In recent weeks, Karzai has stepped up efforts aimed at forging reconciliation with a Taliban insurgency at war with his government and U.S.-led troops for more than nine years. He formed a 70-member “peace council” to oversee formal negotiations and, in a Sept. 28 speech in which he broke into tears, urged Taliban “compatriots” to lay down their arms.
Though Karzai has long had tense, rocky relations with Islamabad, he said this year that Pakistan would play a vital role in any talks with the Taliban.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has repeatedly stated that it would welcome the role of facilitator in such talks. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Sunday in Brussels that though Afghanistan must lead the talks, “we are there to help.”
But a senior Pakistani security official said Wednesday that Pakistan has not been involved in any talks between Kabul and Pakistan-based Taliban leaders. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“We have no information whatsoever about these talks and who is participating. We are out of the loop,” the official said. “If we can facilitate, [the Afghans] first have to determine what kind of help is required.... They’ll have to tell us what our role is.”
A policy of going ahead with peace talks without Pakistan’s involvement, or even consent, could alienate Islamabad and ultimately endanger the potential success of those talks, experts say.
“If Pakistan isn’t involved, it will again think that the U.S. is an unreliable ally that has bypassed it,” said Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst and former Pakistani army general. “They could express their unhappiness by throwing out the whole process of cooperation.”
Another Pakistani security analyst, retired Brig. Javed Hussain, said that leaving Pakistan out of talks probably would doom the chances for success, because Pakistan, particularly its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, exercises a large measure of control over Afghan Taliban leaders based in Pakistan. Without Pakistan’s acquiescence, Hussain said, Afghan Taliban leaders aren’t likely to go along with any peace proposal.
“I don’t think the Taliban would agree to a full-scale settlement without Pakistan,” Hussain said.
The Afghan Taliban’s leadership, known as the Quetta Shura, is based in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta. And the Haqqani network, a wing of the Afghan Taliban behind many of the ambushes and suicide bombings directed at U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces, is based in North Waziristan, a region in Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal badlands along the Afghan border. The Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network are believed to have been provided haven in Pakistan by the Inter-Services Intelligence. For years, Zardari’s weak civilian government has held virtually no sway over the powerful intelligence agency.
Pakistan has long-standing bonds with Taliban leaders that date to the 1980s, when many of them were CIA- and Pakistani intelligence-backed Afghan mujahedin fighting the Soviet invasion. It has not taken action against Afghan Taliban commanders in Quetta or Haqqani militants in North Waziristan, despite repeated urgings from Washington to do so. Moreover, Islamabad sees its relationship with the Afghan Taliban as a valuable hedge against the desire of India, Pakistan’s nuclear archrival to the east, to expand its influence in Afghanistan.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said publicly that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization helped facilitate the movement of Taliban figures so they could attend meetings, and described contacts as taking place at “the highest levels.” That signals the likely involvement of the Afghan Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that in some cases NATO troops secured roads to ensure that Taliban leaders on their way to the talks reached Afghan- or NATO-controlled regions safely. In one case, the paper said, Taliban leaders crossed over from Pakistan and boarded a NATO aircraft that flew them to Kabul. The paper reported that three of the Taliban leaders taking part in talks were members of the Quetta Shura and a fourth was a member of the Haqqani network’s founding family.
The Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is not believed to be in discussions with the Afghan government, the New York Times said.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Karzai’s government has been in direct contact with Jalaluddin Haqqani, the elder leader of the militant network. The group’s operations are overseen by Haqqani’s son, Sirajuddin Haqqani. The Haqqani network operates in the same tribal regions used as sanctuary by the Pakistani Taliban, a homegrown insurgency that focuses its attacks on security and civilian targets in Pakistan.
Even if Pakistan hasn’t been involved in early rounds of talks, experts doubt that it would remain on the sidelines for very long. Karzai understands the crucial role Islamabad would play in talks with the Taliban because of the influence Pakistan maintains over the insurgents’ leaders, analyst Hussain said.
“Karzai knows that without Pakistan involvement, he will not be able to reach an agreement with the Afghan Taliban,” Hussain said. “He knows that without Pakistan, he won’t be able to make a move. He has no hold over the Taliban. Pakistan has a long relationship with the Taliban. Everyone knows it.”
Rodriguez reported from Islamabad and King from Kabul.