WASHINGTON – As Afghanistan’s warring sides prepare to hold long-awaited negotiations next week to establish peace, Pakistan is trying to push the Taliban to come to the table in a move that experts say is an attempt by Islamabad to increase its influence in postwar Afghanistan and counter its rival India.
Pakistan, however, claims that it is only facilitating the peace process in its neighbor to the west and that it is up to the Afghans to decide their future. The claim has been received with suspicion by Afghan officials given Islamabad’s history of alleged interference in the country and support for the Taliban.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met with a group of Taliban representatives in Islamabad on Tuesday to discuss the latest efforts to begin talks between the group and the Afghan government. It comes as negotiations between the two sides have been hampered by a dispute over a prisoner swap and rising violence.
Following the meeting with the Taliban team, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry in a statement said Qureshi emphasized the importance of a peace settlement in Afghanistan for regional stability and “highlighted the importance of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties based on amity, shared history and geography, and reaffirmed Pakistan’s abiding solidarity with the brotherly people of Afghanistan.”
Pakistani officials have repeatedly said that they do not care who rules in Kabul as long as there is peace in Afghanistan. Despite the publicly announced position, Pakistan actually wants the Taliban to “emerge in some sort of position” by having a stake in the future power-sharing arrangement, according to Madiha Afzal, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Afzal told VOA that having a friendly government on its western border is “crucially important” for Pakistan, adding “an Islamist government … will be more friendly towards Pakistan than it would be towards India.”
Pakistan was the main supporter of the Taliban during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s. It was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001.
Afghan and Western officials have charged Pakistan, particularly its military establishment, of supporting and sheltering the Taliban since the group’s collapse in 2001.
The U.S. Defense Department in a report released in May said that Pakistan harbors Taliban militants, including the Haqqani network, which can plan and conduct attacks inside Afghanistan. It said that Islamabad’s strategic objective was to “mitigate spillover of instability into its territory.”
However, Pakistan has rejected those accusations, saying it has suffered human and financial losses in the war against terror groups crossing Afghan borders.
Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Pakistan at this point considers the Taliban an instrument to control Afghanistan’s choices with respect to “whom it allies with and whom it partners with.”
“Pakistan gives the Taliban leadership sanctuary in Pakistan, and it has become an advocate for the Taliban’s peace process,” Tellis said, adding that Pakistan’s contribution at the operational level has been insignificant, as the Taliban have enough resources of their own.
He charged that Pakistan hopes Taliban control or a significant presence in the new government in Kabul could help Islamabad “to keep the Indians at bay.”
With more than $3 billion in development funds, India is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan.
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, president of India-based Mantraya research forum, told VOA that India insists that bypassing Kabul would undermine the elected government of Afghanistan. India is, therefore, “not directly involved in any kind of peace talks with the Taliban.”
The country in the past has labeled the Taliban an instrument of the Pakistani army and blamed their major faction, the Haqqani group, for attacking Indian assets in Afghanistan.
In return, Pakistan has accused India of supporting anti-Pakistani politicians in Kabul and funding Pakistani separatists and militants in Afghanistan.
Homayoun Khan, a former Pakistan ambassador to Afghanistan, told VOA that Pakistan wants “a government in Afghanistan that does not favor India.”
“There is a security phobia in Pakistan – having India on one side and an unfriendly Afghanistan on the other side would not be good,” Khan said.
Risks for Pakistan
Some experts maintain that Pakistan’s alleged support to the Taliban does not come risk-free for the country. They say the group in the future could very well support anti-Pakistan Islamist militants.
Marvin Weinbaum, the director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told VOA that a future Taliban rule in Afghanistan may end with the group giving sanctuary to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has been mainly targeting Pakistan since 2007.
According to the U.N. there are 6,000 to 6,500 Pakistani militants operating as foreign fighters in Afghanistan. It said that the majority of these militants are affiliated with the TTP, a U.S. designated terror group.
Weinbaum said that unlike the 1990s when Pakistan wanted the Taliban to fully control Afghanistan, it now “wants those Taliban who it trusts to have a piece of power, but it does not want to see the Taliban dominate the government.”
VOA’s Afghanistan service contributed to this report.