(ISLAMABAD) — When U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was the head of all international forces in Afghanistan, he used to joke that Afghans would blame the rain on Pakistan, so widespread was the belief that Pakistan and its feared intelligence service was manipulating everything in Afghanistan.
Now Pakistan wants to convince Afghans that it has turned over a new leaf. Pakistani government and intelligence officials have reached out to the very Afghan officials who led the fight against the Pakistan-backed Taliban. And Pakistan has replaced talk of using Afghanistan for “strategic depth” with talk of supporting “Afghan-led,” “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-driven” peace talks with the Taliban.
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, used all those formulations in an interview with ABC News and a small group of foreign journalists in Islamabad Thursday during trilateral talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
Her message about peace talks was a relatively new one, which the Pakistani government has been trying to deliver for the last few months: We will facilitate the peace talks that the Afghans ask us to facilitate.
“If [Afghan President Hamid Karzai] is supporting it, if he’s behind it, and if he thinks it’s going to mature into something, we have no choice” but to support it, she said. “I literally look at Pakistan having no choice.”
What Pakistan wants, Khar continued, is to know exactly what Afghanistan wants Pakistan to do.
“They have been wanting us to facilitate something, right? So we want complete clarity as to what that thing is,” she said. “We would like to play a supportive role….I don’t think we should have been made to guess as to what the Afghans want as much as we have made to.”
In reality, Pakistan doesn’t really need to wait for the Afghans to ask (or guess what they want). Pakistan has in its hands many of the peacemaking cards, if only because many senior Taliban commanders and their families live inside Pakistan’s borders. It can restrict their movement and even threaten them, or let them move and speak freely.
And it seems that Pakistan has taken at least a small step toward supporting what, until now, has been a U.S.-dominated peace process. After a year of talks with the U.S., the Taliban have opened an office in Qatar, and U.S. officials have discussed the possibility of sending five Afghan detainees currently in Guantanamo to Qatar as a “confidence-building measure” to jumpstart further peace talks. Pakistan has played its part, according to a senior Afghan official: It recently allowed the families of the detainees to travel from Pakistan to Qatar.
Even in the corridors of power, Afghan skepticism of Pakistan’s true intentions — despite the Pakistani foreign minister’s statements — remains high. And that’s what Khar admits she needs to fight.
“The burden that Pakistan carries is of trying to claim more than its due share” in Afghanistan, she admitted. “That historical baggage is still there.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Stephanie Halasz, Jason Hanna and Livia Borghese, CNN
Steve Visser and Masoud Popalzai, CNN