AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Fourteen people, including an American, were killed in an attack last night in Afghanistan. A gunman walked into a Kabul hotel and began to shoot. The Taliban claimed responsibility. In the past, Afghans regularly accused neighboring Pakistan of masterminding such attacks, but relations between Kabul and Islamabad have improved a lot. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Pakistan's relationship with the Afghan Taliban might be changing, too.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Something strange happened the other day. The prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, visited his neighbors in Afghanistan. He spoke to the media there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER NAWAZ SHARIF: We strongly condemn increase in violence and Operation Azm offensive by Afghan Taliban.
REEVES: Let's ponder this for a moment. That's Pakistan's prime minister openly condemning the behavior of the Afghan Taliban. That's the same Taliban that Pakistan covertly supported for years. The offensive Sharif talks about is the Taliban's spring offensive, a wave of attacks that began last month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SHARIF: Continuation of such an offensive and attacks will be construed as terrorist acts, and we condemn such attacks in strongest terms.
RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI: This has never been said in the past.
REEVES: Rahimullah Yusufzai is an authority on the Taliban and Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan. He says Pakistani leaders don't usually talk like this.
YUSUFZAI: They will say things against terrorism, militancy, extremism, but never identifying the Afghan Taliban as terrorists or people who are doing something bad.
REEVES: Yusufzai thinks that Pakistan will handle the militants cautiously despite Sharif's threats.
YUSUFZAI: You know, I think Pakistan would be careful about doing this in this way. I don't think there will be a sudden crackdown on the Afghan Taliban.
REEVES: Still, Yusufzai believes there's been a major shift in Pakistani policy. For years, Pakistan tried to shape events in Afghanistan through covert links with militant groups. This was partly an attempt to restrict the influence there of its archenemy India. The strategy backfired, not least because it fueled Islamist militancy within Pakistan. When Sharif's civilian government was elected, his officials promised a new Afghan policy. True, real power in Pakistan lies with the military, but the army and intelligence chiefs were there with Sharif during his recent Kabul visit. Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistan ambassador to Kabul, thinks Pakistan is stepping up pressure on the Afghan Taliban to join peace negotiations.
RUSTAM SHAH MOHMAND: The present dispensation in Pakistan is of the view that the Taliban now need to be cornered, need to be pressured, need to be intimidated, need to be told very bluntly that this is what we mean, and this is what they have to do.
REEVES: Why now? One reason is China. China's promising to invest tens of billions of dollars in Pakistan. It also wants to stop Islamist extremism percolating over its border. It needs to stabilize the region and wants Pakistan to help. Mohammad Ziauddin, a leading political commentator, says there are limits to what Pakistan can do.
MOHAMMAD ZIAUDDIN: Afghan Taliban have been under the influence of Pakistanis, but they have never been under control of Pakistan.
REEVES: There are small signs of progress. The Taliban and the Afghan government held unofficial talks in Qatar this month. Observers detected some positive signals, but there are plenty of skeptics, including former envoy Rustam Shah Mohmand.
MOHMAND: It's not going to work.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.