Following a phone discussion with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani issued a statement calling on the Taliban and “all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-e-Islami,” - a pro-Taliban militant group with historical ties to Pakistan - to participate in what is referred to as a reconciliation process.
The statement, which came less than 24 hours after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in London, is potentially significant since the Taliban leadership - and many of its fighters - are believed to be sheltering on Pakistani soil.
In January Pakistan facilitated the fledgling process in Qatar, where the United States wants the Taliban to set up a liaison office for the purpose of conducting negotiations by allowing Taliban representatives to travel to the gulf state.
Gilani’s diplomatic overture appeared to be a further admission of his country’s influence over the insurgents - although the nature of that influence is hotly debated.
While Afghan officials assert that Pakistan can deliver the militant leadership to the negotiating table, Pakistanis say otherwise. “The Taliban are not going to wait for a statement from the Pakistani leadership to begin talks,” said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a retired Pakistani diplomat.
Less clear, still, is the Taliban stance. Mr Mohmand, a former ambassador to Kabul, said that a “sizeable segment” of the Taliban viewed the talks as “an American gimmick intended to cause a split in their ranks.”
Pakistan’s stance on the Taliban is also a function of its volatile relationship with Washington, which has been effectively on hold since November when American warplanes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a confused cross-border strike.
American plans to move past that case, and re-boot diplomatic relations with Washington, were stymied this week by riots in Afghanistan set off after copies of the Holy Qurans were burned at the country’s Nato base on Monday night.
Under a carefully coordinated plan the US military had planned for General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to make a formal apology for the Nato strike that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers in November via telephone call to Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a defence department official disclosed.
The official added that Hillary Clinton had been planning to amplify that same apology during her London meeting with Hina Rabbani Khar this week, but the plan went awry in the wake of violent rioting in Afghanistan.
Obama administration officials quickly calculated that too many regrets all at once would hand fresh ammunition to Republican presidential candidates, the official revealed.
A senior Pakistani official said that the government in Islamabad also desired that an official American apology be delayed until at least mid-March, as that was when the Parliament was due to hold a special sitting to debate the country’s policy towards the United States.
The complex diplomatic dance will also undoubtedly affect the fledgling Taliban talks process. Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and former adviser to the European Union mission in Kabul, said that Prime Minister Gilani’s statement on Friday was more about politics than talks. “This is about Pakistan, Afghanistan and America - not the Taliban,” he said.
But, he added, rhetoric alone was not sufficient to jump-start the talks process, and in the meantime all players were running out of time to make peace.
“There’s all sorts of things the Pakistanis can do to move towards reconciliation, but a statement won’t convince anyone it is actually happening,” he said. “Reconciliation is doable, but the time to do it is in 2012. And I don’t think the current trajectory will get us there.”