Talking to Taliban

Talking to Taliban

Pakistan's decision to free some members of the Taliban last week has been welcomed in Kabul and Washington as an important step towards a political reconciliation in Afghanistan and a major shift in Pakistan's policy.

The move came during a visit to Pakistan by the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, headed by Salahuddin Rabbani. The council was set up by Kabul to reach out to the Taliban, but has not had much success so far.

Pakistan has promised to give safe passage to these leaders to engage in a dialogue with Kabul and Washington. The released leaders will then be free to take up residence in Afghanistan or a third country.

Until now, the Pakistan army has been reluctant to facilitate talks with the Taliban leaders based on its soil. In fact, Rawalpindi detained anyone from the Taliban it suspected of establishing contact with Kabul or Washington.

Rawalpindi had seen itself as the principal channel of communication between the Taliban and the international community. Having invested in the Taliban for decades as the instrument to promote its interests in Afghanistan, the Pakistan army was naturally reluctant to allow the group to develop an independent engagement with either Kabul or Washington.

Relentless pressure from the US in the last two years appears to have compelled the Pakistan army to signal a measure of flexibility. The release of the Taliban captives is part of a renewed attempt by the US and Pakistan to rebuild bilateral relations after the turbulence of 2011-12.

Sceptics in Delhi would say Pakistan's move is a tactical one. They insist that Pakistan is playing a waiting game and its small gestures should not be seen as a fundamental policy shift.

They also argue that Pakistan has no real interest in losing control over the endgame in Afghanistan and is merely cashing in on the growing impatience in Kabul and Washington to sit down with the Taliban.

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