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Asia

Pakistan's admission about Afghan Taliban and its impact

Pakistan has said for the first time publicly that it is hosting the Afghan Taliban's leadership on its territory. DW examines the reasons behind this announcement and its implications on the future peace talks.

Pakistan had until recently strongly denied allegations that it offers shelter to leaders of the Afghan Taliban and that it exerts considerable influence over the group.

But Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs advisor to the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, admitted on March 2 that his country is hosting the insurgent group's leadership, and using it as a "lever" to nudge the militants into talks with the government in Kabul.

"We have some influence on them [the Taliban] because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities, their families are here," said Aziz while addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank.

"So we can use those levers to pressurize them to say: 'Come to the table'," he added.

The announcement came as a surprise, even though many analysts have long suspected Pakistan of sheltering the militant outfit's leadership.

Conrad Schetter, an Afghanistan expert at Bonn University's Center for Development Research, says the main issue here is whether Aziz made the remarks accidentally or to achieve a certain political goal. Shetter also noted that the remarks might have angered some Pakistani officials who would have preferred to keep it a secret.

Deep divisions

Since their regime was ousted following the US-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban have been engaged in a bloody insurgency to take back power in the conflict-ridden country. Attempts by Afghanistan's Western-backed governments to negotiate lasting peace with the militants have so far failed.

While Afghan officials and Taliban representatives met for the first time in 14 years last summer to hold peace talks, the negotiations were soon scrapped following revelations that the insurgent group's founding leader Mullah Omar had died in 2013.

The news sowed deep divisions among the militants, particularly over the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mansour as their new leader. Mansour has been blamed by many insurgents for covering up Omar's death for two years, resulting in the formation of a splinter group in December under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Rasool.

The divisions among the Afghan Taliban raised doubts about Pakistan's influence over the different factions of the militant group.

According to Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Islamabad is therefore trying to address such concerns and seeking to play a major role in the Afghan peace talks.

"Some Taliban elements are against holding talks in Pakistan. At the same time, the Afghan government is looking at Qatar and Turkmenistan as alternative hosts for peace talks," Saidi told DW, stressing that the recent admission by Aziz is aimed at convincing Kabul and the international community that only the Pakistani government is in a position to broker the Afghan peace process.

Meanwhile, experts argue, Pakistan is realizing that both Kabul and Washington are now not viewing the Taliban as their number one enemy, instead considering the group as a movement that can be persuaded to join the government and used in the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS) terrorist outfit, which has been increasing its presence in Afghanistan since last year.

"Pakistan might be trying to convince Washington and Kabul that only it can persuade the Afghan Taliban to fight against the IS," said Conrad Schetter.

Only a facilitator?

The Afghan government announced in February that direct talks between Kabul and Taliban representatives would be held in Islamabad in the first week of March. The announcement followed a meeting of diplomats from Afghanistan, China, the United States and Pakistan, as part of a four-nation effort to start direct talks.

Although no date has yet to be set, Qutbuddin Hilal, an advisor to Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, told DW that the talks are expected to take place soon. "The next four-nation meeting will happen soon and we are hopeful that the Taliban will also be a part of it," Hilal said, adding that Aziz's recent remarks reflected "good will" on the part of Pakistan to help with the Afghan peace process.

Analyst Schetter says Aziz's remarks will increase pressure on Pakistan bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. "If the Pakistani government repeats such statements, gives evidence and continues to say that it has influence over the Taliban, then the country will bear more responsibility for the whole peace talks," said the expert.

However, Rahibullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist and an expert on the Taliban, stresses that Pakistan is only playing a facilitator's role in the whole process and that it is ultimately the Afghan government that is responsible for holding the talks. "There are high expectations of Pakistan, but as Aziz stated Islamabad is only facilitating the process, and therefore the success of the talks will very much depend on Kabul and the Taliban themselves."

Additional reporting by Sayed Riaz.