U.S. Watches As Afghan-Pakistan Relations Improve

Senior officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan have been discussing how to take action against insurgents on Pakistani soil, and how to further the reintegration and reconciliation process with the Taliban. While the tenuous improvement in relations between the neighbors is seen in some quarters as a positive development, what are the ramifications for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan?

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

When it comes to Afghanistan, a common refrain is that the conflict will ultimately be resolved with a political agreement among the leading parties, including the Taliban. Progress on the battlefield has proven difficult. And in a moment, we'll hear from a Marine Corps general who is in the thick of the fighting.

There have been some tentative steps toward negotiations over the last few months, but mostly between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The United States has not taken part in some high-level talks that could shape Afghanistan.

NPR's foreign affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: When relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan began to warm more than a year ago, it was viewed by the U.S. as a positive step. There had been years, decades of distrust and deception between the two countries. In the past, Afghan President Hamid Karzai frequently and publicly accused Pakistan's intelligence agency of supporting the Taliban and other Islamist groups that were launching attacks in Afghanistan.

Arturo Munoz is a specialist on Southwest Asia at the Rand Corporation.

MONTAGNE: But now the tenor has changed, and you are seeing he's having meetings, and I think he is actually accepting the insistence of the Pakistanis that in any negotiation with the Taliban they be included.

NORTHAM: The contacts between Afghanistan and Pakistan have picked up. Karzai meets regularly with Pakistan army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani; and its intelligence chief; Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

Munoz says there are still deep divisions between the two neighbors but that a number of elements have led to their recent rapprochement. One is a sense that the war is not going as well as the U.S. planned or hoped. But the primary reason, says Munoz, is the July 2011 date that President Obama gave for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Administration officials stress the pace of withdrawals will be based on conditions on the ground. But the suggestion of a U.S. pullout gives Pakistan and opportunity to exert more influence in Afghanistan, says Munoz.

MONTAGNE: In the past they've tried to do that by supporting the Taliban, but I think that there's a strong element within the Pakistani government that says well, we can have even more influence in Afghanistan if we become involved in the peace process - and we help channel it and we help dictate the terms.

NORTHAM: Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the editor of The Long War Journal website, says Karzai is also hedging his bets.

MONTAGNE: I think he's really acting based on what he's seeing from the United States, the lack of support or the lack of long-term commitment. So, you know, Afghanistan is the land of the deal in some ways, and if he sees that the U.S. isn't going to be the powerbroker in a couple of years, if he thinks that going to be the Taliban, that's the one he's going to try and cut a deal with.

NORTHAM: The Obama administration says it is pleased Afghanistan and Pakistan are talking and building a mutual trust, but U.S. officials are concerned about being left out of the discussions. There's a fear the U.S. might miss out on valuable information or may be losing control of developments.

Daniel Serwer with the U.S. Institute of Peace says he doesn't think Pakistan and Afghanistan meeting directly is such a bad thing, as long as the U.S. makes it clear what it wants to see at the end of the talks, such as how former insurgents will be incorporated into government, says Serwer.

MONTAGNE: They're meeting directly, in the absence of a clear understanding of what end state the Americans are aiming at, could, it seems to me, lead to very bad results.

NORTHAM: Some analysts say the U.S. might not mind being cut out of the picture. Polls show support for the Afghan war is slipping. A fast political solution would help bring U.S. troops home quickly.

And Bill Roggio, with The Long War Journal, says the U.S. may want to put too many conditions on any talks.

MONTAGNE: If the U.S. is intimately involved in this process, the U.S. is going to have a bigger hand in trying driving what those terms of that peace agreement would be and, you know, let's face it, Afghanistan issues like women's rights and women going to school, things of that nature, human rights, they are just not at the top of the list and these are just nonstarters for the Taliban anyway.

NORTHAM: Roggio says staying on the edge of the negotiations could also provide political cover. In the end, Mr. Obama may not want to be seen as the president who negotiated with the Taliban.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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