(Reuters) - Pakistan on Friday urged leaders of the Afghan Taliban movement to enter direct peace negotiations with Kabul, a possible sign that Islamabad is stepping up support for reconciliation in neighboring Afghanistan.
Both Afghan and U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of using militant groups as proxies in Afghanistan to counter the influence of rival India, allegations Islamabad denies.
Regional power Pakistan is critical to efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table because of its historical ties to the group.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said in a statement that Pakistan was “prepared to do whatever it takes” to help the Afghan reconciliation process succeed. He called on Hizb-i-Islami -- one of Afghanistan’s most notorious insurgent factions -- and other militant groups to negotiate peace.
The United States is attempting to stabilize the country before foreign combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
The Afghan government has established some contacts with the Taliban, who have made a strong comeback after being toppled by a U.S. invasion in 2001, but there are no signs that full-fledged peace talks will happen anytime soon.
U.S. diplomats have also been seeking to broaden exploratory talks that began clandestinely in Germany in late 2010 after the Taliban offered to open a representative office in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, prompting demands for inclusion from Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently urged Pakistan to advance the peace process.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on regional affairs, said Gilani’s comments marked a shift in Pakistani policy.
“It’s important because I am hearing this for the first time, that the Pakistani prime minister or somebody that important is urging the Taliban ... to talk directly to the Afghan government,” he said.
Afghan officials are holding talks with the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, the head of a provincial peace council in the insurgency’s heartland Kandahar said on Tuesday.
Kandahar peace council head Ata Mohammad Ahmadi told Reuters the officials had been meeting for “some time” with mid-level Taliban commanders in the southwest Pakistani city of Quetta, where the leadership of the militant group is said to be based.
It is unlikely that any meetings between Afghan officials and Taliban commanders could take place in Quetta without the knowledge of Pakistan’s pervasive intelligence agencies.
Pakistan may have stepped up its cooperation with the Afghan government by allowing the meetings in Quetta.
Afghanistan is known to want access to Taliban leaders belonging to the so-called Quetta Shura, or council, named after the city where they are believed to be based. Kabul believes they would be the decision makers in any substantive peace negotiations aimed at ending the war now in its eleventh year.
Pakistan has consistently denied giving sanctuary to insurgents and says no Taliban leaders are present in Quetta.
Ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan were strained for months after the assassination in September of Afghan peace envoy and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Afghan officials blamed Pakistan’s intelligence agency, allegations angrily denied by Islamabad.
But Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said after a recent trip to Kabul that a lot of the illwill between the neighbors had faded.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Nick Macfie