IN the spring of 1992, as the Communist government in Afghanistan started imploding after the collapse of the Soviet Union, seven Afghan mujahedeen leaders, pumped full of C.I.A. money, gathered in Peshawar, Pakistan, to discuss how to take over Afghanistan and share power peacefully.
The man who brought them together and patiently sat with them was Nawaz Sharif, then only 43 and in his first term as Pakistan’s prime minister. A simple man, by no means an intellectual, but with enormous patience and a wily street-smart grasp of politics, Mr. Sharif wanted to be a peacemaker. He nearly succeeded.
Now, 21 years later, he has returned to power at a time when a new round of negotiations on Afghanistan have fallen apart. A year before America’s much-anticipated withdrawal from Afghanistan, talks with the Taliban don’t seem to be going anywhere, which is bad news for those who hope for a political solution. Mr. Sharif’s return to the scene may be their best hope.
Mr. Sharif’s carefully brokered 1992 power-sharing deal ultimately collapsed because of sabotage by Afghan warlords and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agents, who played a double game.
While one section of the ISI helped Mr. Sharif broker his talks, another tried to stage a coup by smuggling hundreds of fighters loyal to the extremist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar into Kabul. The plot failed, but it sparked the bloody Afghan civil war that would last a decade and lead to the emergence of the Taliban.
Pakistan’s Army has managed the country’s policy on Afghanistan since 1978. It must now start sharing the burden with civilian leaders. The army should enlist Mr. Sharif to talk to the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders are mostly living in Pakistan.
Until now, the only Pakistani officials with access to the Taliban have been ISI officers, whom the Taliban have come to intensely dislike because of perceived micromanagement of their affairs.
Mr. Sharif, whose government was seated on Wednesday, could change the equation and help the Taliban climb down from their refusal to resume talks with the United States by marginalizing hard-liners and empowering those Taliban leaders seeking peace. He may also be able to strike a better relationship with the cantankerous president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, than Pakistan’s military leaders have achieved because of years of mistrust.
It is not a question of wresting power from the military and the ISI, but of creating a partnership in which the military concedes negotiating power to a civilian prime minister. Bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table would also have a powerful demoralizing effect on the Pakistani Taliban, who are far more extreme than their Afghan comrades and seek to overthrow the Pakistani government and impose Islamic law.
Pakistan’s military, which has lost several thousand soldiers to extremist groups, says it is now keen to talk to the Afghan Taliban but doesn’t seem to have a road map or willingness to take the initiative. (Last year, the ISI freed 26 Afghan Taliban prisoners it was holding and urged them to play a role in the peace process. Instead, they all disappeared.)
The key to ending the war in Afghanistan, allowing American forces to exit honorably, holding credible Afghan presidential elections and negotiating a power-sharing deal between Mr. Karzai and the Taliban is to generate momentum for a cease-fire agreement.
Secret talks between the United States and members of the Taliban foundered last year because America refused to grant the Taliban the confidence-building measure it wanted: freeing five Taliban commanders from Guantánamo in exchange for an American soldier.
The Pentagon and the C.I.A. were opposed to the talks from the start. It didn’t help that President Obama refused to empower two successive envoys — Richard C. Holbrooke, now deceased, and his successor, Marc Grossman. As a result of the failed talks the Taliban are now more divided than ever, and hard-liners who want to pursue permanent war are ascendant.
After five months of delay, Mr. Obama has appointed James F. Dobbins, a veteran diplomat, as the new American envoy. But Mr. Dobbins won’t succeed unless he has adequate support from the White House.
Mr. Obama has an enormous stake in a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict and a safe withdrawal. But for that to happen he must empower his diplomats to explore every avenue for talks with the Taliban and even take risks by freeing the Taliban prisoners he holds.
Pakistan’s generals also have a stake. They understand that they can’t continue in their old ways, that they can’t pursue a foreign policy based on support for Islamic extremists that undermines the state and the army itself while making enemies of neighbors and frustrating close allies.
But the army has yet to discover how to turn the ship of state around, how to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy and how to use democracy and nation building as tools to fight insurgency.
Mr. Sharif could be the man for the job — if the army will let him do it.
Ahmed Rashid, a journalist, is the author, most recently, of Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan.