By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Matthew Green
WANA, Pakistan/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's powerful army chief has made reconciling warring factions in Afghanistan a top priority, military officials and Western diplomats say, the newest and clearest sign yet that Islamabad means business in promoting peace with the Taliban.
General Ashfaq Kayani is backing dialogue partly due to 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 30 km (20 miles) from Afghanistan. "We have to rise to the challenge. And we are doing it, at the highest level possible."
On December 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 U.S. President Barack Obama to say his administration managed to sway Pakistan - often seen 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 seen 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 skeptical 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 EU country. "We've seen a real shift in their game-plan at every level. Everyone involved seems to want to get something going."
The army has ruled Pakistan for more than half its history and critics say generals have jealously guarded the right to dictate policy on Afghanistan, seeing friendly guerrilla groups as "assets" to blunt the influence of arch-rival India.
But army attitudes towards former Islamist proxies have also begun to evolve due to the rise of Pakistan's own Taliban movement, which has fought fierce battles in the tribal areas and launched suicide attacks in major cities.
Kayani seemed to signal that the army's conception of its role in Pakistan and the region was changing in a speech to officers in Rawalpindi last month.
"As a nation we are passing through a defining phase," Kayani said. "We are critically looking at the mistakes made in the past and trying to set the course for a better future."
Kayani ordered Pakistan's biggest offensive against the militants in 2009, pouring 40,000 troops into South Waziristan in a bid to decisively tip the balance against the growing challenge they posed to the state.
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.
"CHANGE IN MINDSET"
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," Salahuddin Rabbani, the chairman of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, told Reuters. "We have reason to be cautiously optimistic."
Seeking to overcome a bitter legacy of mistrust, Pakistan has also built bridges with Afghan politicians close to the Northern Alliance, a constellation of anti-Taliban warlords who have traditionally been implacable critics of Islamabad.
Kayani flew to Kabul last month for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and accompanied Khar on a visit to Brussels to meet top NATO and U.S. officials in early December.
Skeptics in Kabul wonder, however, whether Pakistan is still hedging its bets. Afghan officials are particularly irked by Pakistan's refusal to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's captured second-in-command, who is seen as a potentially significant go-between with insurgents.
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.
"THERE IS NO OTHER WAY"
Kayani's growing support for dialogue is driven to a large extent by a realization that the United States is intent on sticking to its Afghan withdrawal plans, diplomats say.
A series of high-profile attacks in Pakistan in recent months, including a December 15 raid on the airport in the north-western city of Peshawar, has sharpened concerns that instability in Afghanistan could invigorate Pakistani militants.
Hawks in Pakistan's security bureaucracy may balk at the idea of supporting dialogue unless they can be certain that any future settlement will limit India's influence in Kabul.
But officers deployed in outposts clinging to the saw-toothed peaks of the frontier fear they may soon face an even fiercer fight unless the leaders of the insurgency in Afghanistan can be persuaded to talk.
"After 2014, when the U.S. leaves, what will these guys do? You think they'll suddenly become traders and responsible citizens of society?" said another officer serving in South Waziristan. "We have to make sure of a post-2014 framework that can accommodate these elements. There is no other way."
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in ISLAMABAD and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Editing by Michael Georgy and Nick Macfie)