Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani’s high-risk, high-rewards gamble in reaching out to Pakistan in return for Pakistan delivering the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table seems to have paid off – for now.
After months of intense shuttle diplomacy between the two countries, and a stern warning from Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban on its soil, the insurgent group finally agreed to formally sit across the table from the Afghan government this week in Murree, a resort town close to Islamabad.
Ghani had faced intense criticism for being too trusting of Pakistan. Many in his country, including some members of the Afghan parliament, look at Pakistan with suspicion.
“Pakistan has [its] own interest. They are the ones who were supporting Taliban,” said Shukria Barakzai, a female member of the Afghan parliament who had met with the Taliban during an earlier informal round of talks in Oslo.
However, Ghani’s political bet in ending what he called “an undeclared war” between Pakistan and Afghanistan was not the only factor that convinced one of the world’s richest and toughest insurgent groups to consider giving up war.
Significant changes in the geo-political environment in the region contributed.
Change in Pakistan’s policy
For years, Pakistan’s military was accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani group, and providing it safe havens in the lawless areas bordering Afghanistan.
Four years ago, U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen – at the time America’s top military official – said “the Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”
However, a couple of years ago the Pakistan military realized that Taliban were not going to come to power again in Afghanistan.
Political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said they shifted their policy in favor of having a stable government in Afghanistan with a “friendly working relationship with Pakistan.”
That goal was not possible with former President Hamid Karzai, considered too pro-India and anti-Pakistan by many in the Pakistani security establishment.
When Ghani ascended to power, that dynamic changed.
Changes in security
A deteriorating security situation inside Pakistan and the rise of the Pakistani Taliban also led to a change in the mindset of Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership.
Unlike the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban considered Pakistani state its enemy and carried out attacks inside Pakistan. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis died in such attacks.
Several brazen attacks on military establishments humiliated the army, analysts said.
An attack on a school in Peshawar in December of last year was the final straw. Most of the more than 130 children who were killed were from military families.
Pakistan’s military realized, said analyst Rizvi, that it could not control the threat from the Pakistani Taliban unless it helped the Afghan government reach political reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban.
Before that can happen, John McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Pakistan needs to withdraw its support from the Haqqani group.
"One significant role they can play is to cut off and stop supporting the Haqqani network, which continues to orchestrate attacks in Afghanistan, unacceptably," he said.
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Pakistani security officials told VOA on the condition of anonymity that the top military leadership is already on board with that idea.
The officials said Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif had ordered the use of “all possible influence” with the Afghan Taliban leaders sheltering inside Pakistan to “persuade them to join the peace process.”
Afghan and Pakistani sources say Sharif had promised Ghani that he would bring the Afghan Taliban to the table when he visited Kabul in February this year.
However, the process was delayed after a series of “leaks from Afghanistan,” according to Pakistani security officials.
China, economic corridor
Another strong catalyst for the change in the Pakistani mindset toward Afghanistan was pressure from China, which has a “big stake in peace and stability in the region,” said Masood Khan, head of Islamabad’s state-run Institute of Strategic Studies.
Viewed by Pakistan as its “all-weather friend,” China has announced plans to invest $46 billion in Pakistan in energy projects, rail, and road links from Southern China to a port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province bordering Afghanistan.
“And for the success of these transnational, trans-regional projects, I think peace and stability in Afghanistan, particularly in regard to West Asia, is key,” Khan said.
China has also “invested in Afghanistan heavily and it wants to help Afghanistan with its reconstruction effort,” Khan added.
Analysts say China is also worried about an Islamist insurgency in its Xinjiang province that borders Afghanistan. An unstable Afghanistan could provide safe havens to Uighur militants, allowing them to plan and carry out attacks from across the border.
Emergence of IS
The emergence of the so-called Islamic State group has “clearly worried the Taliban because they have started to put out statements calling for unity among the insurgents and so forth,” said Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group.
Taliban concern about the Islamic State group was also evident from a statement issued by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in May.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning group had organized one of the informal meetings between Afghan civil and political leaders and the Taliban in Qatar.
The statement said: “The model of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) is alien to the tradition and the desires of the Afghan people. This point was agreed upon by everybody.”
Daesh is another name for the Islamist group.
Smith said recent battles in mostly eastern Afghanistan between Taliban and Islamic State fighters have put some pressure on the Taliban militarily.
Many of the militants who have pledged allegiance to the jihadist group are former Taliban, possibly adding to the Taliban leadership's fear that further fragmentation could significantly weaken them.
Withdrawal of foreign forces
One of the biggest demands of the Taliban was the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Now that the U.S. has announced plans to reduce its forces to an embassy-based presence by the end of next year, some analysts say Taliban may find it has no legitimate cause to rally around.
In addition, the Afghan security forces that have taken over from foreign troops have performed better than expected, despite taking heavy casualties. While the Taliban have attacked and captured several districts, the group has been unable to hold on to most of them.
But some, like McCain, believe the effect of foreign force withdrawal may deter negotiations.
“[I]f the Taliban believe the United States is going to be almost out, almost completely out by 2017, that removes a great deal of the motivation for them to reach a peaceful agreement because they're going to think that they can succeed," McCain said.
However the Taliban came to the table, the process is still on shaky ground. The only way for it to succeed is if all parties show patience and maturity, and compromise along the way, said Khan, of ISSI.
“These talks are so important and critical that they should not be allowed to be distracted or undermined by any force and despite the complexity of the dialogue all actors, negotiators and interlocutors should stay the course,” Khan said.