Pakistani officials have been making a series of surprising statements over the last week. Last Friday, Chief of Army Staff General Kayani told a group of Pakistani naval officers that “[w]hile the external threat to Pakistan continues to exist, it is the internal threat that merits immediate attention.” The statement seemed to signal a welcome shift in Pakistani thinking and apparent acknowledgement of something senior U.S. officials have been trying to drive home to Pakistan’s strategic establishment: the genuine threat to the country’s future comes from terrorists seeking to undermine Pakistani institutions, not traditional rival India.
Four days later, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari admitted during an interactive meeting with former senior Pakistani civil servants that “militants and extremists were created and nurtured in the country as a policy to achieve some short-term tactical objectives… But they began to haunt the country in the post-9/11 era.” A July 9th editorial in The Times of India called Zardari’s admission “unprecedented,” with the potential for catalyzing “fundamental shifts in the security discourse” between Islamabad and New Delhi.
But perhaps the most startling revelation was today’s from Pakistan military spokesman Major Gen. Athar Abbas, who acknowledged ongoing contacts with Afghan Taliban commanders using sanctuary in Pakistan to battle Americans across the border in Afghanistan. Abbas was careful to say that even though the Pakistani military maintained contacts with the Taliban leadership and other extremist groups fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan, it did not mean that Pakistan is still providing physical support, funding, or training to the militants.
These statements, which follow ten weeks of Pakistani fighting against Taliban elements in and around the Swat Valley region, are significant. Yet Washington must react with caution. In the best-case scenario, Pakistan has perhaps finally recognized that a policy of fighting some terrorists, while harboring others, is only hurting its own interests. Taken at face value, Pakistan may actually be willing to help the U.S. stabilize Afghanistan, and in return, expect security guarantees vis-a-vis India.
But several questions remain. If the Afghan Taliban leadership has been in Pakistan since early 2002, why is Pakistan only now acknowledging its influence on them? Second, although we know the uptick in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has hit the al-Qaeda leadership hard, how is the Taliban faring? Are they prepared to become part of a democratic political process in Afghanistan? It’s worth noting that there are a couple of Taliban candidates running in the upcoming Afghan elections, including Maulvi Mohammed Hashmi from Zabol Province, who is campaigning on a platform of peace and stability, claiming he can bring the Taliban back into the political process.
These developments also need to be seen in the light of the influx of new U.S. troops into Southern Afghanistan and of Pakistani concerns about the impact of the troop surge on its own interests. Between the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan, shifting sands in Pakistan, and the upcoming August 20 Afghan elections, developments in South Asia bear close watching. The context could be turning in America’s favor.