PM Sharif in US for talks on Afghan peace

Islamabad, October 19

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives in the US tomorrow and is likely to face pressure to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, days after Washington said it was delaying its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

US President Barack Obama last week reversed a pledge to pull troops out as he admitted Afghan forces were not ready to stand alone against the resurgent Islamists, who briefly captured a key northern city this month.

The US sees Pakistan as one of the few sources of influence over the extremists, and analysts say Washington will use the four-day trip to urge Sharif to keep pushing for a new round of talks.

“The US has two objectives behind this visit,” said Pakistan political analyst Hassan Askari.

“The first is to put pressure on Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table and the second is to persuade Pakistan to discourage activities of the Afghan Taliban within Pakistan.”

Washington’s relationship with Islamabad is a prickly one, born of a fraught inter-dependency but pollinated by mutual mistrust.

Pakistan was once the Taliban’s main sponsor and its chief protector, but nominally switched sides after the September 11, 2001 attack on the US. However, US officials suspect the organisation still receives succour from elements in Pakistan, including the nation’s powerful spy agency.

That charge is repeated by Kabul, which accuses Islamabad of harbouring and nurturing Taliban insurgents — allowing them to launch attacks in Afghanistan before melting back across the border.

Under pressure from the US, which has previously tied millions of dollars of aid to Pakistan’s commitment to tackling militancy, Islamabad last year launched a military offensive in its northwestern tribal areas, where the insurgents had previously operated with impunity.

Staunching the flow of blood in Afghanistan’s 14-year war, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, has taken on greater urgency in recent months.

After years on the back foot, the Taliban scored a stinging victory when they captured the northern city of Kunduz.

Afghanistan’s under-par military eventually wrestled it back with the help of US Special Forces and air support, and at the cost of the American bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital which killed at least 24 patients and staff.

Obama’s about-face on troop withdrawal last week crowned a miserable few months, and Washington will be looking to Sharif to help turn things around.

Islamabad brokered the first set of direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in July, but another round was derailed by the revelation of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.