There is confidence in Islamabad that its new importance to international interests in the region can be leveraged to secure its own interests vis-a-vis India.

As New Delhi prepares to put the Mumbai attacks behind for a re-engagement with Pakistan, there is confidence in Islamabad that its new importance to international interests in the region can be leveraged to secure its own interests vis-a-vis India.

After years of being seen as part of the problem in Afghanistan, Pakistan is savouring what it calls a vindication of its position on how to end the conflict in that country, and is confident it holds the key to the proposed new plan of “reconciliation” with the Taliban.

As evident from two sets of remarks by the Pakistan Army chief last week about what it seeks in Afghanistan and how its perceives India, New Delhi will need to factor in a resurgent Pakistani military, assertive about its concerns and self-assured of the resonance these carry in the halls of power in the U.S. and Europe.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the flurry of recent diplomatic moves on the Afghan conflict, culminating in the London Conference, was definitely the game-changer. Certainly, the new international mood seems to have played some role in drawing India back to the negotiating table.

London Conference

The details of the new approach in Afghanistan formalised at the 60-nation conference are still hazy. A cash-for-peace plan aimed at weaning away non-ideological and “moderate” Taliban fighters is one part of it, but the broad consensus emerging from the conference was that there is no way forward in Afghanistan without engaging the Taliban in dialogue, perhaps towards its eventual participation in the governance of that country.

“The outcome of the London Conference has been overall positive. It is a vindication of Pakistan’s position that we need to focus on all aspects of the strategy of the three D’s [dialogue, development and deterrence],” Abdul Basit, spokesman of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Hindu. “The international community now realises that without moving forward on the reconciliation aspect, it is not possible to achieve peace in Afghanistan.”

The decisions at the London Conference were not a total surprise. There were plenty of signals that the U.S. and its NATO allies in Europe no longer believed in the possibility a military victory over the Taliban, and were looking for a dignified exit. Except that the military operations in Afghanistan will now be aimed at persuading the Taliban to negotiation, the next steps in the new roadmap for “reconciliation” and “reintegration” of the Taliban are still hazy. The main actors themselves seem unclear about many things.

Is dialogue to take place with only “moderate” sections of the Taliban? How far have talks, already reported to have begun, progressed? What will be offered to the Taliban? Will there be other parties on the table?

The U.S. remains apprehensive about the idea of talking to the top Taliban leadership. In any case, the big question for any such effort is whether the Taliban can cut off their links with Al Qaeda, give up their extremist views and reconcile with the political and social values of a democratic set-up.

Still, it is hoped that by mid-2011, when U.S. troops will begin withdrawing, enough reconciliation would have taken place for Afghans to run their country themselves.

Two countries are thought to have sufficient influence on the Taliban to be able to deliver on the London Conference decisions. Saudi Arabia, one of only three countries that recognised the Taliban-run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996 until 9/11 — the other two were Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates — has already been asked by President Karzai to act as a mediator. The kingdom, which has no love lost for Osama bin Laden, has set the pre-condition that the Taliban must renounce Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda.

Pakistan still carries considerable clout with sections of the Afghan Taliban, some of whom were given safe haven on Pakistani soil when the U.S. started the war in Afghanistan after 9/11, and continue to remain in sanctuaries in the north-western frontier regions.

“Gatekeepers” to the Taliban

Described as the “gatekeepers” to the Taliban, Pakistan would have a crucial role in delivering the Taliban to the table, either through coercion or persuasion. But it is being careful not to be seen as muscling in to impose its own agenda in Afghanistan. The mantra in Islamabad is that the process should be “Afghan-led”.

“Pakistan is perhaps better placed than any other country in the world to support Afghan reintegration and reconciliation. Why? We speak the same language, we have common tribes, a common religion, we have a commonality of history, culture and tradition” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the Guardian. “But it [Pakistani mediation] depends on whether we are asked to do so. If asked, the government of Pakistan would be happy to facilitate.”

But suspicious of its intentions, President Karzai has not been keen to involve Pakistan as a mediator, while the rest of the international community too is aware that while Islamabad could play a positive role, it could also use its influence over the Taliban to play “spoiler.” But, most observers say, no country except Pakistan can guarantee an end to the conflict in Afghanistan.

“If any country other than Afghanistan has any role, it is Pakistan. It may not be explicit right now, but it is implicit and goes without stating. Whether it is maintaining peace, security and stability of Afghanistan,” said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), “or providing a face-saving exit for American forces, it has to be Pakistan.”

A constructive role by Pakistan is likely to come attached with the demand that the international community address its “legitimate” concerns and issues in the region.

Some of those concerns were articulated by the Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani when, in two meetings with journalists this week, he said India remains the primary threat to Pakistan and the focus of the Pakistani military. He spoke of the peace, security and stability of Afghanistan as the main element of Pakistan’s “strategic depth”, and said Pakistan had a more “legitimate” expectation in the matter of training the Afghan security forces than India.

A Foreign Ministry official, who wished not to be identified, was blunter: “We do not really see India playing any role in Afghanistan. Any role for India in Afghanistan can only be problematic”. On the other hand, he said, Pakistan could not be wished away from Afghanistan, and had “a more natural role” in Afghanistan, given the shared border and other links.

Also, U.S. demands to “do more” against the Afghan Taliban holed up in Pakistani territory no more hold any logic, said Imitiaz Gul, author of a book on Al Qaeda and head of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research: “These demands have to a back seat. If we have to talk to them, why antagonise them?”

The Pakistan military said last month it would not launch new offensives against militants for six months to a year as it was overstretched. The declaration was evidently meant to pre-empt any demand during the recent visit by the U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates for military operations in North Waziristan. Now, said Mr. Gul, the Pakistan Army would want to wait to see how the situation unfolds in Afghanistan.

As Pakistani observers see it, their country has never been better positioned in recent times. At a recent seminar in Lahore’s Punjab University, Mr. Sayed spoke of how the Obama Administration is dependent on Pakistan for its Afghanistan strategy, and on China, a close ally of Pakistan, to maintain regional stability, while India has been downgraded a couple of notches by the Obama Administration from its status during the Bush years..

“The regional situation is moving towards Pakistan’s advantage. We have a strategic opening and we should use it to our advantage,” Mr. Sayed told The Hindu. This, he said, should include reining in India from using Afghanistan for what he alleged were its covert activities in Pakistan, and pushing for a solution on the Kashmir issue.

So is Afghanistan going to turn into a battleground for the competing interests of India and Pakistan? Not necessarily, said Mr. Sayed.

“In my view, Pakistan and India do not have to compete in Afghanistan,” he said, suggesting that the two countries hold bilateral talks on Afghanistan, and “see how we can co-operate instead of compete” in that country.

At the moment, as India and Pakistan do a tug-of-war over what their renewed engagement should be called, that seems easier said than done.

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