ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan is being kept out of efforts by the Afghan government and the United States to end nearly a decade of war with the Taliban, which could be a sign of Washington’s mistrust of Islamabad’s intentions.
NATO and Afghan officials have confirmed preliminary contacts between President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Taliban, whose leadership is based in Pakistan’s northwestern frontier province and the Baluchistan capital of Quetta.
Pakistan’s sway over the insurgents makes it a key ally for Washington in its attempts to stabilize Afghanistan, but Islamabad’s reluctance to crack down on what it sees as insurance in any Afghan settlement has also angered the United States.
“We haven’t been consulted or informed or asked to facilitate any talks. We are not in the loop,” a senior Pakistani security official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Other officials said they were aware of these contacts but they had not been taken into confidence about anything.
The Obama administration is under pressure to show successes in Afghanistan ahead of a December strategy review and the planned start of a troop drawdown set to begin next July.
Analysts say NATO’s facilitation of the Afghan talks without involving Pakistan could be aimed at pressuring it into taking tougher action against the militants who fuel violence in Afghanistan from their Pakistani sanctuaries.
“Perhaps this is another attempt by NATO to send a warning message to Pakistan that unless it adheres more to NATO’s line, Pakistan can be excluded from these talks,” said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and expert on Islamist militancy.
The U.S. forces have stepped up a military campaign in Afghanistan and also intensified missile strikes by pilotless drone aircraft and helicopter incursions on militants’ safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border.
Such a strike this month, in which two Pakistani soldiers were killed, infuriated Pakistan and led it to shut down a supply route for NATO, while militants and gunmen attacked convoys along the second main route.
Although Pakistan is officially an ally in NATO’s campaign against militancy in Afghanistan, it has been accused of playing a double game by covertly supporting activists fighting there.
The Pentagon this month expressed concern that some elements of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency had interactions with the insurgents that “may be seen as supporting terrorist groups rather than going after them.”
Pakistani officials, meeting in Washington this week for a “strategic dialogue” where Afghanistan is likely to loom large, are adamant that peace in Afghanistan is not possible without Islamabad’s help.
“Nothing can be done without us because we are part of solution. We are not part of the problem,” Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told reporters last week.
Another security official was more blunt.
“Without Pakistan or the ISI, it’s not going to work. ... Let them try their options,” he told Reuters.
Ahmed said Pakistan had a “lot of cards” to scuttle any efforts to end war in Afghanistan.
“The most significant card is that all main Taliban leaders ... are living in Pakistan and Pakistanis can exert pressure on them.”
Pakistan could use these leaders and their factions as bargaining chips as efforts to stabilize Afghanistan gather pace and also check the growing influence of its arch-rival India in Afghanistan.
But despite its dominant role in Afghanistan, there is a limit to Pakistan’s influence over Taliban as well, analysts say.
“The Taliban will take care of Pakistan’s interests but not at the cost of their own interests. This is very clear because it will damage their credibility among Afghans,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on tribal and militant affairs. “ISI also knows this and it will not put too much pressure on the Taliban.”
Rashid said Pakistan’s role was crucial in shaping up a final settlement to the Afghan problem, but it should also address concerns of the international community.
“The Pakistan military should show more understanding of the interests of other regional countries in Afghanistan. I don’t think it’s happening right now.”
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy