By Michael Georgy
KABUL (Reuters) - Pakistan is genuine about backing a nascent Afghan peace process and shares the Kabul government's goal of transforming the Taliban insurgency into a political movement, a senior Afghan government official told Reuters.
Pakistan is seen as critical to U.S. and Afghan efforts to promote peace in Afghanistan, a task that is gaining urgency as NATO troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014 and hand over security responsibilities to government forces.
"They have told us that they share the vision contained in our roadmap which is basically to transform the Taliban from a military entity into a political entity to enable them to take part in the Afghan political process and peacefully seek power like any other political entity in Afghanistan," the official said, referring to Pakistan.
"This is the vision that they share."
The official's remarks signaled unprecedented optimism from Afghanistan that Pakistan - long accused of backing Afghan insurgents - was now willing to put its weight behind reconciliation efforts, which are still in early stages and vulnerable to factionalism.
Mutual suspicions between Afghanistan and its nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan, have hampered efforts to tackle militancy in one of the world's most explosive regions.
Pakistan has long been seen as determined to block the influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and has been believed to be quietly supporting the Taliban in the hope they would exclude from power rival, pro-India Afghan factions.
Afghanistan and Pakistan appear to now agree that it is in their interests to work more closely together, with the NATO deadline looming.
Failure to do so could embolden Taliban hardliners determined to re-impose their austere version of Islam.
"I think we are also seeing a situation where the extremist threat is developing in a direction that is getting out of everybody's control," said the senior Afghan government official. Pakistan is battling its own, home-grown Taliban.
"That is only bad news for everyone who has any interest in stability for their own country."
The official, who is closely involved in reconciliation efforts, said recent face-to-face talks between senior Taliban members and Afghan officials in France were an "enormously helpful" step in building a wider environment for peace.
The Taliban spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the discussions in France. The talks included former members of the Northern Alliance faction, which fought the Taliban for years, and Afghan peace negotiators.
The Taliban say they were represented by prominent figures in the movement such as Shahabuddin Delawar, from its political office, which is based in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.
Until now, the Taliban and Afghan officials only made indirect contacts.
"We are very optimistic. We believe that they are genuine in this discussion with us," said the Afghan official.
Another track for talks, between the Taliban and the United States held in Qatar, was suspended by the militants. They said inconsistencies in the U.S. negotiating position were discouraging.
The Afghan official cautioned that in order to sustain Kabul's confidence, Pakistan would need to take further concrete steps after releasing some mid-level Afghan Taliban members from detention, who may be useful in promoting peace.
Pakistan would gain more trust from Kabul by meeting a request to release from detention the Taliban's former second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Asked whether Pakistan had indicated it would hand him over, the Afghan official said: "Not in concrete terms".
Pakistan's powerful army chief has made reconciling warring factions in Afghanistan a top priority, Pakistani military officials and Western diplomats told Reuters, the clearest signal yet that Islamabad means business in promoting peace.
General Ashfaq Kayani, arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan, 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.
The Afghan government official had a similar assessment.
"I think there is a sense that we are also getting, that cooperation from Pakistan now is bound to be meaningful, substantive," he said.
"The reason is frankly, most in Pakistan, in our view, have reached the conclusion that time is running out. That it is no longer just about Afghanistan's instability and Afghanistan's insecurity but it's very much a question of security for themselves."
Cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad has in the past been undermined by attacks which Kabul said were plotted in Pakistan.
On December 6, a Taliban suicide bomber with explosives hidden in his underwear and posing as a peace messenger, wounded Afghanistan's intelligence chief in Kabul. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the attack was planned in the Pakistani city of Quetta and that he would raise the issue with Islamabad.
The Haqqani militant network - which has more experience in guerrilla warfare than the Afghan Taliban - is seen as a potential spoiler in the peace process. The group is allied with the Taliban but diplomats say it is highly unpredictable.
Nevertheless, it would be welcomed to the peace process as long as it met certain conditions, said the official.
"From our point of view, the door of peace is open to anyone. The Haqqanis are a pretty challenging group of people," he said.
"But if they choose to come over to the peace process, then I am sure the peace process will include them."
Pakistan's intelligence agency denies Afghan accusations that it uses the Haqqani network and other militant groups as proxies to counter India in Afghanistan.
The Haqqanis have been blamed for several high-profile attacks on Western targets, including embassies, in Kabul, highlighting the resilience of insurgents after years of fighting Western forces equipped with superior firepower and technology.
The senior Afghan official said Afghanistan hoped to start formal negotiations with the Taliban next year.
"The Taliban should be able to make some form of transformation towards being a political entity soon," he said.
"The key period is 2013. If Pakistan and Afghanistan work hard enough we should be able to achieve some progress on that front."
(Additional reporting by Mehreeen Zahra- Malik in WANA and Matthew Green in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Robert Birsel)