Exclusive: Pakistan's army chief makes Afghan peace "top priority"

Sun Dec 23, 2012 1:17am EST
 

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Matthew Green

WANA, Pakistan/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's powerful army chief has made reconciling warring factions in Afghanistan a top priority, military officials and Western diplomats say, the newest and clearest sign yet that Islamabad means business in promoting peace with the Taliban.

General Ashfaq Kayani is backing dialogue partly due to fears that the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 could energize a resilient insurgency straddling the shared frontier, according to commanders deployed in the region.

"There was a time when we used to think we were the masters of Afghanistan. Now we just want them to be masters of themselves so we can concentrate on our own problems," said a senior Pakistani military officer stationed in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt that hugs the Afghan border.

"Pakistan has the power to create the environment in which a grand reconciliation in Afghanistan can take place," he said, speaking in the gritty town of Wana, about 30 km (20 miles) from Afghanistan. "We have to rise to the challenge. And we are doing it, at the highest level possible."

On December 7, Kayani hammered home his determination to support a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan at a meeting of top commanders at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

"He (Kayani) said Afghan reconciliation is our top priority," said a Pakistani intelligence official, who was briefed about the meeting.

Major progress with Kayani's help could enable U.S. President Barack Obama to say his administration managed to sway Pakistan - often seen as an unreliable ally - to help achieve a top U.S. foreign policy goal.

Afghan officials, who have long suspected Pakistan of funding and arming the Taliban, question whether Kayani genuinely supports dialogue or is merely making token moves to deflect Western criticism of Pakistan's record in Afghanistan.   Continued...

 
Pakistan army soldiers sit in a vehicle during their patrol at an army outpost in Kharang, about 40 km (21 miles) from Wana November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood