For nearly two decades, Pakistan risked internal stability and international isolation by providing sanctuary and support for the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
But the recent arrest of a senior Taliban figure in Pakistan could be a sign that Islamabad is changing its stance on its erstwhile Afghan allies.
According to analysts and members of the Taliban, Pakistan’s powerful military is now pressuring the Afghan insurgents to end their war by negotiating peace with the United States and the Afghan government.
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist, says the recent arrest of Hafiz Mohibullah, a minister in the Taliban regime in the 1990s, could herald a new Pakistani approach to the Taliban.
“Our information indicates that Pakistan’s policy [toward the Taliban] is likely to change,” he told the BBC’s Urdu service. “Pakistan has clearly told the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, declare a cease-fire, and resolve the conflict or it is going to force the Taliban leaders now present inside Pakistan to move out of the country.”
If implemented, the policy will represent a turnaround in Islamabad’s approach toward Afghanistan. For nearly four decades, domestic and international critics have accused Islamabad of supporting Afghan Islamist groups, including the Taliban, in order to dominate and fashion Afghan politics.
But the situation on the ground has yet to reflect any major change. While Mohibullah was arrested over the weekend, he was subsequently released on January 16 after the Taliban leaked his arrest to the press and complained that the move was part of Pakistani efforts to pressure them.
Since 2010, Pakistan has arrested several senior Taliban officials, including the movement’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar. But such arrests made no dent in the Taliban’s war efforts, and Islamabad eventually released most of the detained Taliban leaders at Kabul’s request.
Yousafzai says Pakistan has been keen to brandish its role in facilitating talks between Washington and the Taliban during the past few months. He says Washington now demands that Islamabad push the Taliban to engage in direct negotiations with the Western-backed Kabul government and to announce a cease-fire.
“If there are more arrests [of Taliban leaders], then there will be pressure on the Taliban,” he said.
The Taliban, however, have always opposed any kind of negotiations with Kabul. Since losing power in a U.S.-led military attack in late 2001, the Taliban have identified themselves as the real government of Afghanistan and branded the Western-backed Kabul government a U.S. puppet.
In a January 15 statement, the hard-line Islamist movement reiterated it is only willing to talk about what it terms the occupation of Afghanistan.
“This issue can neither be solved through pressure or tactical maneuvering of anyone, nor is it acceptable for anyone to use the issue of Afghanistan for strengthening ties or furthering their own interests,” the statement said.
Quoting anonymous Taliban sources on January 16, Reuters reported that the insurgents say Pakistan authorities have raided several houses of Taliban leaders. The Taliban sources attributed the pressure to a split between the United States, Pakistan, Iran, and Qatar, with the former pushing the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul while the latter sides with the insurgents.
"Iran and Qatar are supporting the Taliban's way, but Pakistan is saying what the Afghan government and the U.S. wanted," a senior unnamed Taliban leader told Reuters.
Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai says Pakistani pressure on the Taliban might complicate negotiations with the United States.
“Pakistan is capable of ramping up pressure on the Taliban, but the Taliban might not accept everything that Pakistan tells them to do,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
In a January 16 discussion with Afghan journalists, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said the onus of choosing between war and peace in Afghanistan now rests with the Taliban.
“If the Taliban want to talk, we can talk. If they want to fight, we can fight,” he noted. “We hope that the Taliban want to make peace. But if they do not choose to come to the table, if they choose to continue fighting, the United States will stand with the Afghan people and the Afghan government and support them.”
He reiterated Washington’s position that there is no escape from talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
“The road to peace will require the Taliban to sit with other Afghans, including the government,” he said. “There is a consensus among all the regional partners on this point.”
Norias Nori contributed reporting from Prague.