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ANALYSIS - Pakistan to play key role in talks with Taliban

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai needs Pakistan’s help to convince some Taliban factions to end their insurgency, a central plank of his peace strategy, but doubts remain about Islamabad’s motives and ability to deliver.

Sergeant Jonathan Garcia of the US Army's Alpha Company, 2-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, signals for a man to stop during a patrol near the village of Khersak in Arghandab District, north of Kandahar July 9, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong/Files

Pakistan and Afghanistan are both seeking to encourage some elements of the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government by renouncing al Qaeda, laying down their arms and taking part in the Afghan political process.

“Pakistan wants to help Afghanistan,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said at a dinner at the Pakistani Ambassador’s house in Kabul on Monday night.

“It is for them to decide what they want to do. We want to help them as good neighbours because we feel that a stable, peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest.”

Crucial to Islamabad’s efforts will be the attitude of the Haqqani network, which operates on the Afghan-Pakistan border and has longstanding links to Pakistani military intelligence.

But the United States is doubtful one of the most brutal and effective factions of the Taliban insurgency can be persuaded to lay down its weapons and take part in Afghan politics.

“We would strongly advise our friends in Afghanistan to deal with those who are committed to a peaceful future,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday while on a trip to Islamabad.

Headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Haqqani network is allied with the Taliban and is believed to have close links to al Qaeda.

The U.S. State Department is likely soon to declare the Haqqani network an international terrorist organisation.

Analysts believe Pakistan is holding groups such as the Haqqani network in reserve to maintain influence in Afghanistan after the Americans begin to leave next year and to check the rising presence of its arch-rival, India, and to a lesser degree Iran.

“Iran and India share the same allies,” said Kamran Bokhari, a security analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, referring to the two countries ties to Afghanistan’s varied tribes and ethnic groups.

“Traditionally the Iranians allied with the Tajiks, the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, the same people the Indians have been supporting as well. And they both have an interest in making sure Pakistan doesn’t dominate Afghanistan.”

LESSON LEARNED

But Pakistan is also looking to broaden its influence in Pakistan so that it is not seen as simply backing the Taliban or the Pashtun groups that dominate much of the south, as it did in the 1990s.

“They learned their lesson last time,” Bokhari said. “This time around the Pakistanis don’t want to just back the Taliban. They’re going to support Karzai, they’re going to support the Taliban. They want to undermine Indian influence among Afghan society.”

To do that, the Pakistanis will have to offer something. “It seems some interaction has taken place between Haqqani and perhaps Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst. “But again, what would the Afghan government be willing to offer them?”

He does not think the Haqqani fighters or other groups would be so ready to “lay down their weapons and live happily ever after”, he said. “There has to be some kind of offer to them.”

Retired Pakistani Lieutenant General Talat Massod, now a prominent defence analyst, thinks Pakistan will try to broker a power-sharing agreement between Taliban militants and the Afghan government.

“If it can make them come into the political system, that is one of the major areas where Pakistan can play a role, especially Pakistan’s military and ISI,” he said, referring to Islamabad’s main intelligence service.

What any Pakistan inducement might be is unclear. And that uncertainty leads to suspicions about what Pakistan might offer and why.

Pakistan has long ties to Afghan militant groups. It managed and propped them up -- funded by American and Saudi cash -- during the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and was one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban government, with which Haqqani was allied, when it came to power in the 1990s.

Despite official statements that Pakistan broke off contact with the Afghan Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, senior Pakistani intelligence officials have said they’ve maintained some level of contact, if only to monitor the leadership council, which is widely believed by analysts to be hiding in Pakistan.

“I think there is some sort of unease in Washington,” Bokhari said. “There are some who say we need the Pakistanis to help in the overall stabilisation in Afghanistan. But then there are those who say, we don’t like the Haqqani network, and the Haqqani network is tied to all sorts of Pakistani intelligence and al Qaeda.”

“There is a gulf between how the Pakistanis define the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban and what Washington calls the reconcilable and irreconcilable Taliban.”

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Burch in Kabul; Editing by Alex Richardson)

For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here

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