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Pakistan's army chief makes peace priority

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, 9:30 p.m.

WANA, Pakistan —Pakistan's powerful army chief has made reconciling warring factions in Afghanistan a goal, military officials and Western diplomats said, the newest and clearest sign yet that Islamabad means business in promoting peace with the Taliban.

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani is backing dialogue partly because of fears that the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 could energize a resilient insurgency straddling the shared frontier, according to commanders deployed in the region.

“There was a time when we used to think we were the masters of Afghanistan. Now we just want them to be masters of themselves so we can concentrate on our own problems,” said a senior Pakistani military officer stationed in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt that hugs the Afghan border.

“Pakistan has the power to create the environment in which a grand reconciliation in Afghanistan can take place,” he said, speaking in the gritty town of Wana, about 20 miles from Afghanistan. “We have to rise to the challenge. And we are doing it, at the highest level possible.”

On Dec. 7, Kayani hammered home his determination to support a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan at a meeting of top commanders at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

“He (Kayani) said Afghan reconciliation is our top priority,” said a Pakistani intelligence official, who was briefed about the meeting.

Major progress with Kayani's help could enable President Obama to say his administration managed to sway Pakistan —often viewed as an unreliable ally — to help achieve a top U.S. foreign policy goal.

Afghan officials, who have long suspected Pakistan of funding and arming the Taliban, question whether Kayani genuinely supports dialogue or is merely making token moves to deflect Western criticism of Pakistan's record in Afghanistan.

Pakistan backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is viewed as a crucial gatekeeper in attempts by the U.S. and Afghan governments to reach out to insurgent leaders who fled to Pakistan after their 2001 ouster.

Relations between Taliban commanders and Pakistan's security establishment have increasingly been poisoned by mistrust, however, raising questions over whether Kayani's spymasters wield enough influence to nudge them towards the table.

Nevertheless, diplomats in Islamabad argue that Pakistan has begun to show markedly greater enthusiasm for Western-backed attempts to engage with Taliban leaders. Western diplomats, who for years were sceptical about Pakistani promises, say Islamabad is serious about promoting stability in Afghanistan.

“They seem to genuinely want to move towards a political solution,” said an official from an European country. “We've seen a real shift in their game-plan at every level. Everyone involved seems to want to get something going.”

Outsiders are largely barred from the tribal belt, but Reuters was able to arrange a rare three-day trip with Pakistan's military last month.

Security appeared to have improved markedly in South Waziristan since the offensive, but the visit also underscored the huge task Pakistan's army still faces to gain control over other parts of the border region.

Haji Taj, who runs an Islamic seminary for boys and girls in Wana, said militants were still at large in surrounding mountains. “Outside the army camp, it's Taliban rule,” he said.

Kayani, a career soldier who assumed command of the army in 2007, has been a key interlocutor with Washington during one of the most turbulent chapters in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Arguably Pakistan's most powerful man, he has earned a reputation as a thoughtful commander who has curbed the military's tendency to meddle overtly in politics.

With Kayani's support, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has held repeated rounds of discussions with Afghan counterparts, and in November Pakistan released more than a dozen Taliban prisoners.

The move aimed to reassure the Afghan government and Pakistan's allies of Islamabad's good faith and telegraph to the Taliban that Pakistan is serious about facilitating talks.

“There is a change in political mindset and will on the Pakistani side,” said Salahuddin Rabbani, the chairman of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. “We have reason to be cautiously optimistic.”

Even with Pakistan's unambiguous support, diplomats warn that there are unanswered questions over what form any peace process might take, and whether Taliban hardliners will engage.

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