ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s foreign minister said Thursday that the country would be willing to push the Taliban and their allies to make peace if asked to do so by the Afghan government, an action seen as key to the reconciliation process.
Pakistan’s role is vital because it has strong historical ties with the militant group, which many believe continue to this day, and insurgent leaders are thought to be based in the country. But there are also limits to what Islamabad can accomplish since the Taliban have been notoriously difficult to control and are wary of Pakistani influence.
The peace process has picked up momentum in recent months with the Taliban’s decision to set up a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar to facilitate negotiations. But progress has been limited, hampered by distrust between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said full-fledged peace talks were still “miles away” and could only begin once the Afghan government determined how the process should be structured.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai initially opposed the U.S.-backed move by the Taliban to set up an office in Qatar, worried he was being sidelined by Washington in the peace process. Rumours have swirled recently that Karzai’s government was seeking direct talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia, but the group rejected those reports on Wednesday.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have also long had strained relations, with Afghan officials accusing Islamabad of allowing the Taliban and their allies – especially the feared Haqqani network – to use Pakistani territory to wage their insurgency.
Tensions flared further last year with the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and head of the government’s peace council. Afghan officials blamed insurgents based in Pakistan and claimed they were aided by Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI. Islamabad denied the allegations.
The Pakistani foreign minister visited Afghanistan on Wednesday in an attempt to repair relations and discuss Taliban reconciliation. She was the first senior Pakistani official to travel to the country in months.
Karzai said after Rabbani’s killing that peace talks with the Taliban were hopeless unless Pakistan did more to support the process, claiming only Islamabad could access the group’s leaders.
When asked in an interview with a small group of foreign journalists Thursday whether Pakistan would push the Taliban and the Haqqani network to make peace, Khar said Pakistan is “willing to do whatever the Afghans expect or want us to do.”
The process could be slightly awkward for Pakistan, however, because the government has long claimed that it has severed ties with groups. But many analysts believe Pakistan has continued the relationships as a way to counter the influence of its archenemy, India, in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Khar declined to say whether Karzai or other Afghan officials specifically asked Pakistan to approach the Taliban during their meetings Wednesday. The Afghan president is scheduled to visit Pakistan in mid-February, at which time they will discuss the process further, said Khar.
She said Pakistan has played no role in the reconciliation process so far, including the Taliban’s move to set up an office in Qatar. She is scheduled to visit Qatar with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in the coming days.
The peace process has also been complicated by friction between Pakistan and the U.S., especially after American airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts in November. Pakistan retaliated by closing its border crossings to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan and kicking the U.S. out of a base used by American drones.
The Pakistani parliament is working out new guidelines to define the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Khar said she assumed it “will not be so much of a problem” to reopen the border to NATO supplies after that process is finished.