Pakistan Could Be Vital To 'Afghan-Led' Peace Process

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An end to the war in Afghanistan is slowly beginning to come into view, 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Few countries have been as deeply affected by the decade of fighting as Pakistan.

Since 2001, Islamist extremism fueled by the Afghan conflict has claimed the lives of 35,000 Pakistanis — 30,000 of them civilians.

For all of their mutual suspicions, the Americans and Pakistanis seem to agree on one thing: Both need a durable peace in Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to staunch a hemorrhage of blood and treasure, and Pakistan to stop extremism from spilling across the border and further radicalizing the country.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua says without peace and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan's tumultuous decade could go on indefinitely.

"Pakistan wishes to see in the endgame in Afghanistan a peaceful, prosperous, unified, sovereign and independent Afghanistan," she says, "where the people of Afghanistan can determine their destiny according to their wishes. We stand by Afghanistan in an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process."

Despite what sounds like a hands-off policy, Pakistan has a clear preference among the warring parties: the Afghan Taliban. Pakistani intelligence nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s and, analysts say, maintains deep ties with Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar and his allies in the Haqqani network. Many of the key militant leaders operate from sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

So, analyst Ayesha Siddiqa says, Pakistan has leverage over the Afghan Taliban that could bring members to peace talks.

"I think the basic thing is that if you are protecting them, if you are keeping them, if you are allowing them on your territory, then there has got to be that kind of influence," she says.

Siddiqa says the endgame for Pakistan is to ensure that it has someone in Kabul, like the Taliban, who shares its religious orthodoxy, "its world view," she says, and can also project Pakistan's image as a "fortress of Islam."

"You know, prop itself up as an alternative Islamic empire, a force to reckon with, a force that the world then has to deal with," Siddiqa says.

Defense analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi, however, doubts that the Taliban could be easily swayed by Pakistan. He says its leaders felt betrayed after former President Pervez Musharraf signed up for the Bush administration's war on terrorism in the wake of Sept. 11. In addition, he says, the Taliban could dominate Kabul when the war is over, a troublesome prospect for Pakistan.

"Because that means their counterparts in Pakistan will become strong," Rizvi says. "The whole tribal area and Afghanistan will become one Taliban territory, and that is a scary scenario for Pakistan."

Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, agrees that Pakistan does not want the Taliban back in power exclusively, but would like to see them return in a power-sharing arrangement.

"The Taliban, the Mullah Omar group and Haqqani network still provide leverage for Pakistan in a reconciliation scenario. This is the friendliest option Pakistan has," Yusuf says.

There is another perennial concern, however: archrival India and its close relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

According to a report jointly complied by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, Pakistan's policy elite is concerned that India's present engagement in Afghanistan goes beyond development aid and is aimed at influencing the endgame.

"Pakistan now is increasingly reconciled with the idea of Indian development presence, but anything beyond, they're not," Yusuf says, "and I think Washington has underestimated just how important the Indian factor is for Pakistan and how much Pakistan worries about this."

Former Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed Khan says a growing nexus between India and the U.S. has given Delhi an ascendant position in Afghanistan, "which equips it with an enormous nuisance potential against Pakistan security."

There is also concern in Pakistan over the U.S. preserving a security presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the deadline to pull out most if not all U.S. combat troops. Javed Hussain, a retired brigadier, says retaining U.S. military bases could scuttle any long-term peace.

"These bases will come under attack. There will be no stability. The al-Qaida will join the Taliban again, and the Americans will be forced on the defensive," Hussain says.

Dealing with the U.S. in an Afghan endgame may be the most difficult issue of all for Pakistan.

The U.S. covert raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad has deepened mutual distrust and raised doubts about whether the two sides could collaborate on a solution in Afghanistan. Yet, Siddiqa says, the closer the U.S. gets to the time of departure, the better positioned Pakistan may be in the endgame, with American misgiving about bin Laden's presence in Pakistan set aside.

"When the American back is to the wall proverbially, and it's eager to find a way out and bring the boys home," she says, "it doesn't make Pakistan irrelevant at all."

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