ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan publicly called on the Taliban for the first time Friday to engage the Afghan government in U.S.-backed peace talks, a potentially significant move that could help pave the way for a settlement to end the decade-long war.
Islamabad's support for the process is seen as vital because of its alleged links to the Taliban and because many of the group's leaders, including chief Mullah Omar, are believed to be based on Pakistani soil.
But the impact of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's call Friday depends on whether it is backed by the Pakistani army's shadowy intelligence agency, the ISI, which has been closest to the Taliban. It also remains to be seen just how much sway Pakistan has over the militants.
"It is now time to turn a new leaf and open a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan," said Gilani. "In this spirit, I would like to appeal to the Taliban leadership as well as to all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-i-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace."
Hizb-i-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord whose ties to Pakistan date back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Another key faction is the Haqqani network, viewed by the U.S. military as the most dangerous militant group in Afghanistan. The group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, is another Pakistani ally from the Soviet era and is believed to be based in the country's northwest.
Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi welcomed Gilani's statements, calling them a positive first step.
"The second step is of course to move forward, to facilitate meetings and talks between the Afghan government and the armed opposition," said Faizi.
The Pakistani prime minister's comments, which followed a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Islamabad last week, are the latest indication that momentum for peace talks is building.
The Taliban are setting up an office in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in the first step toward formal negotiations. Also, the Obama administration is considering releasing five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay as a starting point for talks.
But the process has been riddled by rumor, uncertainty and distrust among all the players involved, including the United States.
Karzai initially resisted the U.S.-backed move by the Taliban to set up the Qatar office because he felt the Afghan government was being sidelined.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have said they would prefer to negotiate with the United States, which has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than the Afghan government.
Pakistan and Afghanistan also have clashed. Kabul has long accused Islamabad of providing sanctuary for the Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan in the 1990s with Islamabad's help.
Pakistan has denied the allegations, but it is widely believed to have retained ties with the group because it could be a key ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, especially in countering the influence of neighbor and archenemy India.
Pakistani defense analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said Gilani's call for the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government could be critical if it is backed by the ISI.
"If the military is not on board, it is the prime minister's own initiative, and it will likely not work," said Rizvi.
However, he doubted Gilani would have made such a direct statement if he wasn't backed by the army.
The head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, met with Gilani on Friday to discuss Afghanistan, the prime minister's office said.
Pakistan's accommodating tone Friday seemed to mark a shift from last week.
During Karzai's visit, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said it would be "preposterous" for Afghanistan to expect Islamabad to deliver the Taliban's leader for talks.
Karzai said at the time there were "impediments" to the peace process that needed to be removed — a possible reference to Pakistan's lack of support.
The Afghan president issued a public statement after his visit saying it was "crucial" for Pakistan to back peace talks with the Taliban. Gilani's comments Friday were a direct response to Karzai.
Even if the ISI is determined to push the Taliban to the negotiating table, it's unclear just how much influence it has. Many of the militants reportedly distrust Pakistan, and they have been notoriously hard to control.
The Taliban seemingly have significant negotiating leverage since they know the U.S. aims to withdraw most of its combat troops by 2014 after more than a decade of war.
"I don't think Pakistan can compel them to sign a peace agreement," said Rizvi. "However, Pakistan can definitely encourage them, and they would listen to Pakistan."
The Afghan war has helped spark a domestic Taliban insurgency within Pakistan.
Taliban suicide bombers armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked a large police station in Pakistan's northwest city of Peshawar on Friday, killing four officers and wounding six in an assault meant to avenge the death of a militant commander in a U.S. drone strike. zPeshawar has been a frequent target of militant attacks over the last few years, but most have been bomb blasts, not coordinated assaults in the center of the city such as Friday's attack.
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.