ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan is determined to have a controlling say over Afghanistan’s future, whether a peace settlement with the Taliban is cobbled together or not.
Pakistani officials have been delivering a familiar message — peace in Afghanistan is not possible without Islamabad — after signs that major stakeholders are seriously considering ways of trying to end nine years of war.
Pakistan will no doubt make these demands at a three-day meeting with U.S. officials that starts on Wednesday and which will also discuss ways to broaden relations that have recently been strained by the Afghan conflict.
Here are some questions and answers on what Pakistan hopes to get out of any Afghanistan endgame.
Pakistan’s influence has been growing in Afghanistan since its ISI spy agency supported anti-Soviet mujahideen holy warriors in the 1980s. Pakistan later helped create the Taliban. Today, it is accused of still covertly backing Taliban leaders fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan sees them as insurance against the growing interests of rival India there.
All sides know Pakistan is needed for any settlement because of its influence over senior Taliban leaders, who are believed to be hiding in its lawless northwestern border areas with Afghanistan. But to what extent can Islamabad shape one?
Pakistan is betting on the Taliban to do its bidding, whether through negotiations, in the event of a Taliban takeover, or a return to chaos and civil war. That’s why it is maneuvering to get its Taliban proteges included in the talks.
Islamabad hopes the United States would eventually welcome the participation of the Haqqani faction — its main asset in Afghanistan and Washington’s deadliest foe there.
The group — named after a notorious mujahideen warrior with a history of switching sides — and other Taliban factions may have their own agenda, however.
After all, most Taliban leaders are nationalists, not global jihadists like al Qaeda, who are likely to resist too much Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs.
“They are not going to be somebody’s puppet just like that,” said Pakistani Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai.
A repeat of history. After Soviet troops were defeated in Afghanistan, U.S. interest in Afghanistan evaporated and Pakistan was left with a mess next door, where civil war broke out.
Pakistan believes a planned July 2011 gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would be hasty and could lead to large-scale instability with repercussions. For one, more Afghan refugees could join the millions who fled here when rival warlords destroyed the country after the Russians left.
It wants a well calculated pullout that fully takes into account Islamabad’s interests.
Otherwise, Pakistan’s generals may continue to resist U.S. pressure to mount an all-out offensive in its North Waziristan tribal border region to eliminate the Haqqanis. It is more likely to launch selective operations to try to appease the Americans.
Pakistan can always try to sabotage any peace process through ISI ties to the Haqqanis or figures like overall Taliban leader Mullah Omar, if it feels left out.
The U.S. is likely to again complain that Pakistan — the recipient of $2 billion in annual U.S. military aid needed to fight Taliban insurgents — must do more to tackle militancy when they hold another “strategic dialogue” in Washington this week.
Given recent strains in ties, Washington may not be in the mood to hear Pakistani advice that the Obama administration should be practical, not idealistic, and keep an open mind on dialogue with all Taliban leaders.
For now, Pakistan will remain patient, hoping Washington can eventually be persuaded, as Islamabad weighs all the possible dangers ahead. Regional powers like Russia and Iran could undermine the best-intentioned comprehensive peace plan if they decide their interests are being undermined, for instance.
An unstable Afghanistan may not be so bad for Pakistan. It would feel threatened by any strong central government with close ties to India. Islamabad may prefer to see power in the hands of provincial warlords and Taliban factions it can manipulate.
As long as conflict doesn’t spill over the border and overwhelm Pakistan, it may keep playing a game it has mastered over the years.
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy