NEW YORK - As Afghanistan's presidential election moves to the next phase, senior Pakistani officials in Islamabad underscored the need for the new government to ensure that India is not allowed to use Afghan soil to create instability in Pakistan, a major American newspaper reported Friday.
The officials also expressed confidence that the next Afghan leader will have better chances than President Hamid Karzai's outgoing government at opening serious peace talks with the Taliban, according to The Wall Street Journal, noting that Pakistan intends to remain neutral in the June 14 runoff contest between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani.
In a dispatch from Islamabad, the newspaper said Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, who came to power a year ago, has attempted to improve Pakistan's relations with Kabul, building a personal rapport with President Karzai and repeatedly stressing Islamabad's new policy of noninterference in Afghan affairs."
"The key issue for Pakistan, officials in Islamabad stress, is to make sure the new Afghan government doesn't let India use Afghan soil to fuel instability within Pakistan," the dispatch said.
"Our policy of noninterference hopefully can be followed by other regional countries, so there are no more proxy wars in Afghanistan," Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's National Security Adviser, was quoted as saying in an interview with the Journal. "Let Afghanistan's fate be determined by the Afghans themselves. Once they have sorted out all their problems, we can all compete in trade and reconstruction and development, but not in the power games."
About prospects of peace in Afghanistan, Aziz said, "A new government with legitimacy that is elected will improve the prospects for a more meaningful interaction and dialogue for reconciliation and peace".
"A successful election would "strengthen Kabul's hand in creating a broad-based coalition of all the stakeholders, and we will want that," Tariq Fatemi, the foreign affairs adviser of Prime Minister Sharif, was quoted as saying in the course of the same dispatch. "We want whoever comes to power to be able to reach out to all segments of the Afghan society."
Noting that Pakistan has historically supported the Afghan Taliban, the dispatch pointed out that Islamabad was also involved in facilitating the attempted opening of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Qatar, an effort that collapsed last June after President Karzai objected to the high-profile status of the Taliban mission there.
At the same time, the paper claimed, Pakistan has repeatedly stepped in to block peace contacts that bypassed Islamabad, arresting in 2010 the Taliban's deputy chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had engaged in secret talks with Karzai's representatives.
In recent weeks, it said, Pakistani authorities detained two brothers of the Taliban's Qatar-based chief negotiator, Tayeb Agha, in an apparent effort to rein in Agha and prevent unauthorized contacts. But Fatemi said he wasn't aware of the detentions.
Also in recent weeks, the Afghan Taliban named a militant recently released from Pakistani custody and seen as close to Pakistani intelligence, Ibrahim Sadar, as their new military commander, the journal said, citing two Afghan officials. The Taliban haven't formally confirmed that appointment.
Outlining the parameters of the peace discussions so far, Aziz, the national security adviser, was quoted as saying it wouldn't be in Pakistan's interest to have the Afghan Taliban control swaths of territory across the border because those areas could become havens for the separate Pakistani Taliban insurgency. Instead, he suggested the Afghan Taliban should be offered a share of power through governorships of some provinces and other unelected appointments, something he said has been raised by President Karzai.
"Not territory, but participation. You have to make it worthwhile for them," Aziz said. "That kind of power sharing, certainly they are stakeholders," he added.
"The main thing is, we from the outside should not dictate to them what they should do and what they should not."
Fatemi added that, in any future peace talks, Pakistan "will not be in the driving seat. We will only play a supporting role."
The Journal said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's outreach to President Karzai has been met with suspicion by many in Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence establishment, where the Afghan leader is resented for his policies and close links with Pakistan's strategic rival India. Karzai's leaving the stage would reduce some of that tension, it said, citing unnamed people aware of the establishment's thinking.
"Anyone would be better than Karzai," added a senior Pakistani official.
"That is a change from the previous election in 2009, when Pakistan tacitly supported Mr Karzai against Mr Abdullah, who was seen as hostile to Islamabad because of his past as a leader in the Northern Alliance that fought against Afghanistan's Pakistani-backed Taliban regime before the 2001 US invasion," the dispatch said. "Pakistan has also traditionally seen itself as a supporter of Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group, and Mr Abdullah—unlike Mr Karzai or Mr Ghani—comes from a mixed Pashtun-Tajik ethnic background. The hostility to Mr Abdullah has dissipated to a large extent, in part because of discussions that Pakistani representatives have had with Northern Alliance leaders over the past year," the dispatch said.
"We would follow a policy of having no favourites because, whatever policy may have been followed in the past, it had proven to be nonproductive, in fact counterproductive," Fatemi said.