By Sebastian Abbot and Heidi Vogt
Pakistan has increased efforts to reach out to some of its biggest enemies in Afghanistan, a significant policy shift that could prove crucial to U.S.-backed efforts to strike a peace deal in the neighboring country.
The target of the diplomatic push has mainly been non-Pashtun political leaders who have been at odds with Pakistan for years because of the country’s historical support for the Afghan Taliban, a Pashtun movement.
Many of the leaders fought against the Taliban when the fundamentalist Islamic group seized control of Afghanistan in the 1990s with Pakistan’s help, and have accused Islamabad of maintaining support for the insurgents following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 — allegations denied by the government.
Many experts agree that Pakistan continues to see the Taliban as an ally, albeit a shaky one, in countering the influence of archenemy India in Afghanistan. But they also say Islamabad no longer believes the insurgents can take over the country or wants them to, a common misperception in the West.
“A Taliban victory on the other side of the border would give a huge boost to domestic militants fighting the Pakistani state,” said Zahid Hussain, a journalist who has written extensively about Islamabad’s war against the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan is also worried that unrest in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2014 could provide the Pakistani Taliban with greater space to establish sanctuaries across the border.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have focused on different enemies. The Afghan Taliban have battled local and foreign forces in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani Taliban have mainly waged war against Islamabad.
Pakistan’s concerns have led it to conclude that a peace agreement that includes all Afghan groups is in its best interests, and contact with its traditional foes among the non-Pashtuns is necessary to achieve that goal, said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser for the United States Institute of Peace.
“I think the fundamental point here is that there is a serious realization among some people who matter in Pakistan that they can’t continue to put all their eggs in the Taliban basket because it is too shaky,” said Yusuf. “This is a major shift, and a shift that I think everybody should welcome.”
The outreach comes as Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. have stepped up efforts to breathe new life into the Taliban peace process, which has been hamstrung by distrust among all the parties involved.
The U.S. and Pakistan recently set up working groups to identify which Taliban leaders would be open to reconciliation and to ensure those holed up on Pakistani territory would be able to travel to the site of talks. Pakistan and Afghanistan have been in discussions to revive a joint commission set up to discuss the peace process.
Pakistan is seen as key to a peace deal because of its ties with the Taliban, and there is hope that Islamabad’s increased engagement with non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan will facilitate the process.
“I think one of Pakistan’s realizations is that if you want to play a bigger role to reconcile all these groups, you need to reach out to every group,” said Rahimullah Yousufzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban. “They will be pushing the Taliban to share power with all these people, but it won’t be easy because the Taliban aren’t known to share power and the U.S. doesn’t want to give them a major share.”
Islamabad’s historical support for the Taliban and other Pashtuns in Afghanistan, who make up about 40 percent of the population of 30 million, is partly rooted in the sizable number of Pashtuns who live in Pakistan. The ethnic group has always been seen as the best bet for furthering Pakistan’s interests in the country.
Pakistan first advertised its overtures to non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan in February when Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar met with a range of ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders during a visit to Kabul. Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf followed suit in July when he traveled to Afghanistan and invited the group to the opening of the new Pakistani Embassy in Kabul.
There have also been less publicized contacts by Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul, Mohammad Sadiq, and the country’s army and intelligence service, according to Pakistani and Afghan officials.
Khar said the policy shift had been in the works for a while but was like a steering a large ship in a new direction.
“You’re not able to do it immediately,” said the foreign minister.
Pakistan’s powerful army is the true arbiter of the country’s Afghan policy, but experts expressed doubt that the Foreign Ministry would have pushed ahead without the support of the generals, who have historically had the closest relationship to the Taliban.
One key Afghan leader who has met with the Pakistanis, Abdullah Abdullah, said he appreciated the country’s recent attempt to reach out because it was done publicly. The influential politician, who was runner-up to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 election, said Pakistani intelligence officials contacted him in previous years, but he refused to speak with them because he did not believe communication should be carried out in secret.
“I see a lot of good in reaching out, in engagement, in dialogue,” said Abdullah, who is half Pashtun but draws much of his support from the Tajik community.
The outreach has rattled the Taliban, who have warned Pakistani officials that they can’t trust the non-Pashtuns, Yousufzai said.
Pakistan will have to overcome significant distrust among the non-Pashtuns. The government has old ties to some of the leaders, who worked with Pakistan in the 1980s to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but Islamabad’s subsequent support for the Taliban created a huge amount of bad blood.
Despite that, the Pakistanis are hopeful.
“The Pakistani side’s view of Afghan negotiations is that you kill on one day and kiss on the next, so while this will be very tough, they think that it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that they may actually get somewhere,” said Yusuf, the South Asia analyst.
Vogt reported from Kabul, Afghanistan.