Afghanistan looks to Pakistan for help with Taliban

As Pakistan deals with the fallout from Tuesday's assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani met Wednesday with Pakistan's military chief to help nudge the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Ahead of a meeting with Pakistani officials in Islamabad, former Afghan President and chief of a new peace council Burhanuddin Rabbani (l.) prays with his delegation for Pakistan's governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer, assassinated on Tuesday.

A high-level peace delegation to Islamabad by a former president of Afghanistan has been overshadowed by Pakistani political turmoil, including the assassination Tuesday of a top governor and a major breakup in the ruling coalition.

But former President Burhanuddin Rabbani still met Wednesday with Pakistan’s military chief, Ashfaq Kayani, and will meet with the country’s president and prime minister in the next three days, highlighting the official visit’s importance to the two countries.

Mr. Rabbani’s mission is to get Pakistan’s help in nudging the Taliban to the negotiating table. That involves convincing Islamabad that those Afghans who would sit across the table from the Taliban – power brokers like Rabbani who have historical ties to India – are friendly to Pakistan.

“[The delegation] will be encouraging all counterparts in Pakistan to … ask what help they can give to try to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table,” says Michael Semple, an expert on the negotiations who is currently in Islamabad. “I think it’s an indication that both Kabul and Washington acknowledge that the involvement of Pakistan is key.”

Over the past year, the Afghan government has moved aggressively to mend fences with Pakistan. Appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to head the country’s High Peace Council, Rabbani has continued the charm offensive on this visit.

“Rabbani, expressing strong sentiments of friendship and brotherhood toward Pakistan, stated that Afghanistan and Pakistan were brothers and neighbours,” read a statement from Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. “He said Pakistan was the most important country for Afghanistan.”

Serious negotiations to end the Afghan war have so far failed to get underway because of divergent preconditions set by the Taliban and the United States. The Taliban want US troop withdrawal to be on the table; the US wants the Taliban to accept the Afghan Constitution and to disarm and disown any international agenda.

Pakistan involvement in Taliban talks

When members of the Taliban and the Karzai government tried to secretly start talking anyway, Pakistan rounded up the Taliban involved. Many analysts interpret the arrests as a Pakistani effort to control the terms of the talks.

Mr. Karzai has since moved closer to Pakistan. But there’s little indication yet that he or Rabbani will get the Pakistanis to help soften Taliban preconditions. Instead, the language of current and retired officials suggests Pakistan intends to stand off from the “talks about talks,” allowing the Taliban to play hardball in setting the rules.

“Unless the Americans agree to make withdrawal of American forces a negotiating point then there is no point in talks,” says Roshtam Shah Mohmand, a former ambassador to Afghanistan who will meet with Rabbani.

Rabbani is likely to hear a similar message when he meets with Hamid Gul, a retired chief of Pakistan’s intelligence services.

“Once the basic requirements of the Taliban are met, then Pakistan can be helpful as a facilitator. Pakistan cannot influence the Taliban,” says Mr. Gul.

Abdul Basit, spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, also denies that Pakistan has influence over the Taliban.

“I would not use the term ‘influence,’” says Mr. Basit. “We can facilitate in certain respects; we can definitely play a role, but that role has to be defined by the Afghans themselves.”

Asked whether Afghans can freely decide on their own when Pakistan has rounded up past Taliban negotiators, Basit said those were joint operations with the Americans and a response to US and Afghan calls to arrest Taliban figures.

The India card

Pakistan ultimately remains concerned about trumping India’s role in whatever government ultimately emerges in war-battered Afghanistan. Rabbani can play a role in assuaging those concerns given that he represents a faction in Afghanistan that has looked more toward India than Pakistan for support.

After Rabbani’s visit, top representatives of Afghanistan and Pakistan may have a chance to meet on the sidelines of a memorial in Washington for US special envoy Richard Holbrooke to be held Jan. 14. Mr. Holbrooke played a role in brokering the recent bilateral thaw, including a trade agreement last July that allowed Afghan trucks to cross Pakistan to reach India.

Holbrooke’s successor, Frank Ruggiero, will make his maiden trip this week to both countries as the US special envoy.

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