In his first visit to Afghanistan since he took office in June, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif Saturday promised to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai's efforts to seek peace and reconciliation with the Taliban.
Sharif’s visit to Kabul came only days after a senior delegation from the Afghan Peace Council visited Islamabad to discuss the peace process and visit Afghan Taliban prisoners in Pakistan. In the wake of that meeting, Pakistan released three Taliban commanders—including a close aide of Mullah Omar, a move seen as an effort to encourage negotiations in Afghanistan.
Following talks, Sharif promised that his civilian government would maintain friendly relations with its neighbors--including Afghanistan, and will play a neutral position in Kabul’s effort to make peace with the Taliban.
“A peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s vital interest,” Sharif said, stressing that peace and stability in and with Afghanistan is key to a “peaceful and prosperous neighborhood.”
NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan ends in December 2014, and most observers believe Pakistan stands to play a key role in advancing a political solution to the 12-year-old Afghan conflict.
But skeptics in Kabul question Pakistan’s ability to maintain neutrality. Afghans have long accused Pakistan of fueling instability in Afghanistan, supporting the Afghan insurgents and giving them safe havens in the country’s tribal areas.
Pakistan rejects these allegations, and on Saturday, Sharif said he would encourage a meeting between members of an Afghan peace council and former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released from Pakistani jail last September.
Islamabad’s former Ambassador to Kabul, Rustam Shah Momand, believes that Sharif’s visit has reassured Karzai of Pakistan’s sincerity in the Afghan peace process and its willingness to play a positive role in it.
“Peace in Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakistan,” Mohmand said. “Security in Afghanistan will benefit Pakistan the most, and insecurity in Afghanistan will harm Pakistan the most.”
Ghafoor Liwal, Director of the Afghan Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, believes that Nawaz Sharif has visited a Kabul that is much changed.
“The political environment in Afghanistan is no longer the same as it was during the 90s,” Liwal said. “Afghan people’s perceptions about Pakistan have changed a great deal. Back in the 90s, Pakistan was viewed as the center of Islam by most Afghans, whereas now Pakistan is more viewed more as a potential adversary by most Afghans, [rather] than an ally.”
Some experts believe that Pakistan’s history of conflict resolution efforts in Afghanistan during the early 90s--and again with the Taliban regime in late 90s--could be an asset in the current peace and reconciliation process.
Who has the final say?
A question remains, however, as to how much autonomy Sharif, a civilian leader, has to make important foreign policy decisions, particularly regarding Afghanistan. Many believe that any decisions made by Sharif will have to be approved by Pakistan’s strong military.
“Pakistan’s military plays a vital role in sustaining the country’s unity against a rival India and other powers in the region and without doubt the military will continue to have that dominance in the future as well,” said Alam Payand, director of the Middle East Study Center at Ohio State University.
That said, Payand believes that military can only go so far. “Soldiers cannot run the economy nor can they do other vital national tasks that civilian administration can, and I think Pakistan’s military has realized this,” he said.