On July 7, representatives of the Afghan National Unity government and the Afghan Taliban met in Pakistan’s hill station of Murree – about 45km northeast of Islamabad.
This was the first time representatives from the two sides were meeting in their official capacities, and in the presence of officials from Pakistan, the US, and China.
The Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar has since endorsed these talks, which are now being hailed as a major breakthrough.
Still, for many, the real news was Pakistan’s genuinely constructive role in nudging the Taliban to put meaningful demands on the table.
Those privy to the conversations confirmed that the Taliban signalled positive intent during the talks and that Pakistan had much to do with ensuring this.
This is especially significant given the deep-rooted perception in Afghanistan, and many Western capitals, that Pakistan has not been sincere regarding peace in Afghanistan.
This is supplemented by the belief that if Pakistan truly wanted to, it could push the Taliban to accept a settlement with Kabul.
A new hope
Ever since 9/11, Pakistan had opposed US-led efforts to attain military victory against the Afghan Taliban. But it has also remained wary of any attempts to talk to the Taliban that did not offer Pakistan a ringside seat.
Up until the meeting in Murree, Pakistan had not even responded meaningfully to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s conciliatory overtures that crucially offered it a central role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Sceptics flagged this as clear evidence of Pakistan’s continuing lack of interest in a stable Afghanistan.
The meeting in Murree has therefore raised hopes anew. Those that see Pakistan’s insincerity – or lack of will – as the main problem are wondering whether this is a sign of genuine change.
Indeed, it is. But this is not nearly as relevant as many believe it to be.
The elephant in the room is not Pakistan’s lack of will, but rather its likely inability to unify significant members of the Taliban in support of the process. This is complicated by the simple truth that the group is no longer a unified body.
Internal fractures have not only resulted in the much-hyped defections to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but there is also increasing evidence that a number of Taliban field commanders may be operating independently of the Pakistan-based leadership. This is the point most continue to ignore.
Best available partner
Ghani’s promises to cater to Pakistan’s concerns after taking power worked to cause an immediate rethink among Pakistani decision-makers.
The issue of “will” was addressed once Pakistan’s top military brass recognised that Ghani was the best available partner in Afghanistan and understood that his fall may plunge Afghanistan into outright civil war – a scenario Pakistan can ill-afford given its inevitable spillover in terms of additional security and humanitarian problems.
The levels of Taliban-led violence in Afghanistan in the coming days will be an obvious indicator of their [Taliban leadership] relevance to the pro-fight commanders.
Pakistan’s military leadership has therefore been trying in earnest to get the Taliban shura members to initiate formal dialogue with Kabul ever since Ghani’s maiden trip to Pakistan in November 2014.
Their efforts for dialogue increased even more after Ghani’s security forces acted against Pakistani Taliban (TTP) sanctuaries in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the militant group’s December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, that left over 130 school children dead.
But Pakistan’s efforts have not gone nearly as smoothly as hoped for – mainly due to the extent to which internal fracturing within the Taliban has weakened the senior moderate actors Pakistan holds most sway over.
We saw early evidence of Pakistan’s lack of leverage over those willing to stay the course in the battlefield when it failed to deliver on its promise to Ghani that it would try to prevent the Taliban from launching their “spring offensive“.
In undertaking the most ferocious offensive yet, these Taliban fighters have not only defied Pakistan and the moderate leaders within the group, but have also challenged the conventional wisdom that the Taliban recognises that it can no longer march on Kabul like they did in the 1990s.
On the verge of collapse
Some of the field commanders leading the offensive reportedly felt that total victory was close. The widespread perception across Afghanistan that Ghani’s government is on the verge of collapse must only be providing them with greater encouragement.
The Taliban members who participated in the Murree talks have always been serious players within the group. But unless they can prove leverage over their counterparts who are leading the spring offensive, their value to the reconciliation process will remain questionable.
The levels of Taliban-led violence in Afghanistan in the coming days will be an obvious indicator of their relevance to the pro-fight commanders.
Be that as it may, for talks to succeed, it is important to give all Taliban groups a clear sense that any military victory is impractical.
This implies that the Afghan government and its security forces must withstand the Taliban’s offensive through this fighting season without losing significant territory to them.
Pakistan can help by taking harsher measures specifically against those Taliban members most opposed to talks.
Simultaneously, the international community must work to dispel the perception that Afghanistan is being abandoned again.
Most of all, Ghani needs to improve his government’s performance to gain much-needed breathing space at home.
Moeed Yusuf is a native of Pakistan and currently serves as a senior foreign policy expert in Washington DC.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.