During a recent visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul secured the release of several Taliban prisoners in an effort to push the political reconciliation process forward in his country. The announcement came only a few weeks after Pakistan’s decision to release Taliban prisoners during the visit of an Afghan High Peace Council delegation to Islamabad.
Both countries have also agreed to provide a safe passage to travel for talks and work jointly to get at least key leaders of the Taliban removed from the United Nations sanctions list.
Pakistan, through these talks, is attempting to safeguard its strategic interests in Afghanistan and once again using the Afghan Taliban to facilitate it. As far as Pakistan is concerned, the Taliban, whatever its past experiences with them, still form the only political faction in Afghanistan that could possibly ensure its interests there.
Pakistan, however, does not expect the Taliban to be capable of securing a military victory or controlling the country as it did before the 2001 invasion. It is unlikely that Pakistan itself would want to see complete Taliban domination in Afghanistan in the future either. A broad based government representing the various political factions, including the Taliban, would be more acceptable.
Thus, by showing an eagerness to assist the Afghan peace talks, Pakistan is seeking to secure a place for the Taliban in a future representative political setup without a protracted armed struggle that could see the insurgents completely excluded from the process.
At the same time, by maintaining control over the release of the prisoners, Pakistan can ensure that only Taliban members who are amenable to its interests get to play a prominent role in the talks. Hence its refusal to release Mullah Baradar, despite repeated requests from the Afghan government, as he is believed to be staunchly opposed to Pakistan.
Moreover, the playing of a “constructive” role in the process helps Pakistan achieve the additional objective of somewhat allaying the allegations of its duplicity in the Afghan war and thereby ease the international pressure on that count.
Pakistan has always wanted to play a role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation efforts and resented attempts to isolate it from them. Mullah Baradar, for instance, was arrested when he rouched out to the Afghan government on his own.
It is possible that the release of further prisoners or any assistance in the peace talks depends on Pakistan’s own sense of its level of involvement.
The belief that Pakistan would be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is based on the assumption that it holds a massive sway over the group. This influence may be overestimated. Pakistani relations with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the faction with which the Afghan government and the United States wish to negotiate, are tenuous at best and restricted to the provision of physical refuge. The relations between Pakistan and the Taliban government were similarly strained. It may not be possible for Pakistan to play a bigger role than it already is.
Pakistan’s significance lies more in its capability to play a destructive role than a constructive one. It is capable of scuttling the peace process and can stoke violence by supporting groups like the Haqqani network and engineer attacks against the government or foreign troops in Afghanistan.
It is therefore worrying that Pakistan has yet to provide access to the higher echelons of the Taliban leadership as demanded by the Afghan government. Nor has it released all of the high-profile Taliban prisoners which the administration in Kabul believes can play a crucial role in reaching a final settlement.
Any progress with Pakistan on these scores would be contingent on how both countries deal with their deep rooted mutual distrust. There is a widespread skepticism, even hostility, in Afghanistan toward Pakistan and its role in fomenting violence. The continuous volley of accusations back and forth of providing safe haven to insurgent elements and traditional border disputes flare up from time to time and could derail the progress.