WASHINGTON: Pakistan likely played a crucial role in persuading a reluctant Taliban to enter into tentative peace talks with its American and Afghan government foes, experts said.
For more than two years, the United States has been promoting the idea of negotiations free of preconditions with little result, as Taliban insurgents seemed unwilling to risk talking to their adversaries, particularly Afghan leaders in Kabul.
But Pakistan, which has deep links to the Afghan Taliban, appears to have forced its proteges to come to the table, clearing the way for negotiations after numerous false starts, said Scott Smith, a former UN official who worked in Afghanistan.
"One thing that changed was the Pakistani support for it (peace talks)," Smith told AFP. "At some level there's a shift." The move comes from a newly-elected government in Pakistan, which faces its own battle with extremists at home and may have calculated that the Afghan Taliban needed to be reined in next door, experts said.
"You have a deterioration of the situation in Pakistan," said Smith, referring to violence from militants inside Pakistan. "Maybe they've made a calculation it's getting too dicey" to fuel the Afghan Taliban's insurgency, he said.
Islamabad's support for peace talks "may not be a change in policy, but it's definitely a deliberate decision on their part to have the Taliban go this far," he said.
US officials made a point of crediting Pakistan for helping to clear the way for the dialogue, which will see US and Taliban representatives meet as early this week. Not long ago Islamabad was accused by Afghan officials of sabotaging an earlier reconciliation initiative with Saudi Arabia as mediator, as Pakistan reportedly felt sidelined.
"Pakistan has been very important in this because Pakistan has always been and will always be a potential deal spoiler," said Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation think tank.
"Any deal it wants to crush it can do so quite easily." For the Taliban, peace talks are fraught with risk, potentially sapping the morale of fighters, sowing divisions among leaders and undermining its propaganda, according to the diplomat who will be leading the US delegation, James Dobbins.