ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – When U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was the head of all international forces in Afghanistan, he used to joke that Afghans would blame the rain on Pakistan, so widespread was the belief that Pakistan and its feared intelligence service was manipulating everything in Afghanistan.
The belief was reasonable. Pakistan, among other things, helped defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan, chose sides in the subsequent civil war, helped create the Taliban and bring down the Afghan government in the mid-1990s, and is widely believed today to allow the Afghan Taliban to use Pakistani territory to train and organize.
But now Pakistan wants to convince Afghans that it has turned over a new leaf. Pakistani government and intelligence officials have reached out to the very Afghan officials who led the fight against the Pakistan-backed Taliban. And Pakistan has replaced talk of using Afghanistan for “strategic depth” with talk of supporting “Afghan-led,” “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-driven” peace talks with the Taliban.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar used all those formulations in an interview with ABC News and a small group of foreign journalists in Islamabad today during talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
Her message about peace talks was a relatively new one, which the Pakistani government has been trying to deliver for the last few months: We will facilitate the peace talks that the Afghans ask us to facilitate.
“If [Afghan President Hamid Karzai] is supporting it, if he’s behind it, and if he thinks it’s going to mature into something, we have no choice” but to support it, she said. “I literally look at Pakistan having no choice.”
What Pakistan wants, Khar continued, is to know exactly what Afghanistan wants Pakistan to do.
“They have been wanting us to facilitate something, right? So we want complete clarity as to what that thing is,” she said. “We would like to play a supportive role. … I don’t think we should have been made to guess as to what the Afghans want as much as we have been made to.”
In reality, Pakistan doesn’t really need to wait for the Afghans to ask (or guess what they want). Pakistan has in its hands many of the peacemaking cards, if only because many senior Taliban commanders and their families live inside Pakistan’s borders. It can restrict their movement and even threaten them, or let them move and speak freely.
And it seems that Pakistan has taken at least a small step toward supporting what, until now, has been a U.S.-dominated peace process. After a year of talks with the U.S., the Taliban have opened an office in Qatar, and U.S. officials have discussed the possibility of sending five Afghan detainees currently in Guantanamo to Qatar as a “confidence-building measure” to jumpstart further peace talks. Pakistan has played its part, according to a senior Afghan official: It recently allowed the families of the detainees to travel from Pakistan to Qatar.
Khar declined to confirm that Pakistan facilitated the families’ travel, but said, “We did nothing to – where we potentially could have … block any process, and we will continue not to do anything to block the process.”
But Khar and her backers in the Pakistani military also know any notion of waiting for the Afghans to make a request may be rhetorical, because the Afghans may never speak with one voice.
Karzai often asks Pakistan to facilitate talks with Taliban leadership. (Afghan officials believe Pakistan has already scuttled such talks in the past, arresting Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar two years ago as a way to eliminate a promising Taliban-Kabul dialogue.) But next to Karzai at his meetings in Islamabad has been Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan’s national security advisor, who just this week called the Taliban murderers and subservient to foreigners – a clear accusation that Pakistan still controls the Taliban.
Even in the corridors of power, Afghan skepticism of Pakistan’s true intentions – despite the Pakistani foreign minister’s statements – remains high. And that’s what Khar admits she needs to fight.
“The burden that Pakistan carries is of trying to claim more than its due share” in Afghanistan, she admitted. “That historical baggage is still there.”
Whether Pakistan can convince Afghanistan that no, Pakistan doesn’t control the rain, may go a long way in determining whether the two countries will be able to work together to create a lasting peace.