Pakistan has played a behind-the-scenes but crucial role in courting the Afghan Taliban for long-awaited intra-Afghan peace talks, aiming at political reconciliation and an end to decades of violence in the war-stricken country, according to local experts.
The landmark talks, which has started in Doha on Saturday, follow a US-Taliban deal reached in February.
They will be tackling tough issues including the terms of a permanent cease-fire, constitutional changes and power sharing.
"Pakistan has played a silent but very important role in bringing the Taliban to sit with the Kabul government and other stakeholders," retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, a Peshawar-based expert on Afghan affairs, told Anadolu Agency.
"The months-long reconciliation process was aimed at setting the stage for direct talks between the Taliban and other Afghan stakeholders, including the Kabul government, to reach a political settlement,” said Shah, adding the intra-Afghan talks “could not be possible without Islamabad's fullest support."
In December 2018, Pakistan had also arranged rare direct talks between Washington and the Taliban, paving the way for the Doha peace deal between the two sides.
Pakistan also facilitated the landmark first round of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Islamabad in July 2015. The process broke down after the Taliban announced the death of their long-time leader Mullah Omar, triggering a bitter internal power struggle.
Afghans' decades-old dependence on Pakistan in terms of business, education and health always gives Islamabad a degree of influence over different Afghan groups, mainly the Pashtun population.
The new spokesman for Taliban's Doha office, Mohammad Naeem earned a doctorate degree from International Islamic University, Islamabad in 2006.
"Pakistan has had a relation of respect with the Afghans, including the Taliban. It's that relation which actually helped persuade the Taliban to come to the table," Shah, who served from 2003 to 2006 as secretary of Pakistan's northwestern tribal region which borders Afghanistan, argued.
Echoing Shah's views, Ashfaq Hussain, an Islamabad-based expert on defense and security affairs, observed that Islamabad had long been trying to court the Taliban to look for a political settlement of the nearly two decades-long conflict.
"The foremost role has been played by Afghans themselves, whose resistance has forced Washington to come to the table, " Hussain told Anadolu Agency.
An author of several books on defense and security related issues including a bestseller on the 1999 Kargil war with India, Hussein said Pakistan's role remained significant throughout the reconciliation process.
- 'Pakistan gave Taliban full confidence'
Just two weeks before the kick start of the intra-Afghan peace talks, a seven-member Taliban delegation, led by the militia's deputy chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, visited Islamabad to discuss the then proposed direct talks with the Kabul government. Many view that visit as a "consent" from the Taliban to sit with the Afghan government which they had long been refusing despite consistent international pressure.
"That visit was indeed very significant in terms of clearing the way for the much-awaited intra-Afghan dialogue. It played a role in clearing their [Taliban] minds as Pakistan gave them full confidence," Shah said.
He, however, dispelled the impression of Pakistan's "arm-twisting" tactics to compel the Taliban leaders to come to the negotiations with the Afghan government.
"Those who give this impression do not actually know the psyche and history of Afghans. You cannot twist their arms, but you can court them with respect. That's what Pakistan has done to break the ice," he went on saying.
In addition to the Taliban's visit, US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad paid a dozen visits to Islamabad in less than two years -- five in the last five months alone, which bolstered Pakistan's role in the reconciliation process. So much so that Khalilzad rushed to Islamabad on Sunday, only a day after the opening of intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, to discuss the outcome of the initial dialogue.
According to Tahir Khan, another Islamabad-based expert on Afghan affairs, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had offered that his country could help the US in coaxing the Taliban to have talks with Washington to reach a political settlement during his visit to the UN General Assembly in New York last year.
"Washington finally realized that only Pakistan is capable of dealing with the Taliban. That's why the Trump administration changed its attitude towards Islamabad," Khan told Anadolu Agency, citing Khalilzad's frequent visits to Islamabad.
US President Donald Trump last year stepped up efforts to resume the long-stalled process, seeking Pakistan's help to end Washington's longest war in recent history.
- Talks like 'rocky ride'
Experts see the ongoing intra-Afghan peace talks as a "complex" process but having no other option but "success".
"It is very difficult to predict the outcome of these talks. It's like a rocky ride," Shah said.
"I personally see slim chances of success, but I fully support the process as there is no other solution,” he said.
"The history of Afghans tells us that they have failed to resolve their differences through talks. But history does not repeat itself always."
Partially agreeing with Shah, Khan said that "no doubt, it's a difficult terrain, but all sides, including the Taliban, have no other option except for success."
"The Taliban, who had long been refusing to sit with the Kabul government, have finally softened their stand and are now negotiating with them. It shows their seriousness and gives hope."
Khan, however, cautioned that the two sides, particularly the Taliban, might come up with new and difficult conditions as the talks move forward.
"The outcome of the initial meetings is positive and hopeful. But the real test of the two sides will be during the actual talks for power-sharing and constitutional changes."