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September 13, 2016

Sustaining Afghan-Pakistan ties


September 13, 2016

The writer is a former ambassador.

For some time now, Pak-Afghan relations are in reverse gear. The newly announced tripartite talks to be initiated shortly among Afghanistan, India and US have further exacerbated the situation.

The initial two years of the presidency of Ashraf Ghani witnessed a qualitative change in the fractured bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He took bold decisions to undo Karzai’s pro-India policies. He turned down the Indian offer to supply weapons to Afghanistan. He declared his intention to send military cadets for training to Pakistan. Despite domestic opposition, he secured an intelligence-sharing MOU between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS).

In addition, he worked on developing a regional strategy for Afghan stability. He connected himself with all neighbouring states, with high or low stakes in peace. He called on the leadership – from Azerbaijan to India and China – in this regard. His narrative prioritised reconciliation with the Taliban to reconciliation over defeating or eliminating them. More importantly, he accepted Pakistan’s central role in this pursuit.

In Pakistan, he further built special rapport with General Raheel Sharif, with the full support of the civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. President Ghani lavishly praised Pakistan for “efforts in paving the ground for peace and reconciliation “ in Afghanistan. He cited two major suicide attacks which helped bring the countries closer – one in Yahyakhel (Afghanistan) in November 2014 that left nearly 50 people dead, and the second a Taliban massacre at Peshawar (Pakistan) in December 2014 that killed 153 persons, mostly children.

The fundamental changes President Ghani introduced in Afghan foreign policy alarmed India. Earlier in 2011, India and Afghanistan had signed a strategic partnership agreement, which called for training of Afghan military personnel by India. Pakistan then showed its displeasure and offered training facility to Afghan military cadets. The then president Hamid Karzai persistently declined the offer and reportedly used intemperate words against the Pakistani military establishment. India was bewildered by the changes introduced in the Karzai’s policies by President Ghani.

If seen against this background, decisions such as i) training of Afghan military cadets in Pakistan: ii) signing of an MOU that will see both countries working closely together to fight terror; and iii) stopping the blame game were indeed seminal developments. Pakistan felt confident and upbeat that with the US and China as guarantors, it would be able to bring the Taliban to table.

On the presumption that the Taliban would take up the offer seriously to build a new security paradigm in Afghanistan in collaboration with the Afghan Government, Pakistan made some tall promises to the Afghan leadership. Iran and India were taken into confidence by Afghanistan over the reconciliation process, hoping that they would not scuttle the process. The future looked promising.

The first and only round of talks held in Murree failed to develop a consensus on basic key issues. Resultantly, Afghanistan continued to suffer from violence. Other developments, including the death of Mullah Mansour, complicated the process of reconciliation. The Taliban reiterated that reconciliation with the Afghan government would be impossible until foreign troops left Afghan soil – a condition laid down during Karzai’s presidency in 2014.

As the frequency of suicide attacks increased, the Afghan government came under severe pressure to revert to the blame game. The situation became so edgy that both the countries unnecessarily clashed over Pakistan’s renewed efforts to improve border management by constructing a gate at the Torkham border crossing.

President Ghani has lost patience. He, like his predecessor, has started blaming Pakistan for whatever happens inside Afghanistan. He has reversed his policy of not seeking weapons from India as well as not despatching Afghan military cadets for training in India. The relations with Pakistan are back at square one: acrimony touching a new high.

Afghanistan thinks that past Pakistani governments did not help despite promises. For instance, at Karzai’s request former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called upon the Taliban leadership as well as all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-e-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace. But his government did nothing to realise this objective.

Likewise, the Nawaz Sharif’s government is not living up to its oft-claimed commitments. Moreover, no one in Kabul believes that since Pakistan did too much for Afghans and the Talban, how it could not persuadethe Taliban to talk to the Afghan government.

Now the mistrust has spread out in the entire body of social and political elites in both urban and rural concentrations. Pakistan is condemned publicly. Its flag has been dishonoured. The recent onslaught of familiar past rhetoric from Kabul is fuelling anti-Pakistan sentiments across the ethnic divide in Afghanistan. The latest slur comes from Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor (Mohammad Hanif Atmar) who on September 5 accused Pakistan of lying about its relations with the Taliban. According to him, “President Ghani had no hope that they [Pakistan] will help us with peace talks”.

On the contrary, Pakistan has refrained from issuing any malicious rejoinder. In fact, Chief of the Army Staff Raheel Sharif said on September 6: “we know very well how to abide by the bonds of friendship”. Referring to Afghanistan, he added that Pakistan’s sincere efforts for peace were being blocked by unnamed “self serving quarters” that were not sincere with Afghanistan. He further said that Pakistan was committed to better border management with the Afghanistan government. The likelihood is that the statement will be ignored in Kabul, which is flying high over the forthcoming tripartite talks (Afghanistan, India and US).

The reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban is fundamental for the survival of both Afghanistan as a unitary country and the National Unity government that is unable to handle the internal strife and growing failures to forestall the Taliban’s offensive moves.

First the differences between the Afghan government and the Taliban have to be abridged. As a second step, all stakeholders should be brought on the same page without disturbing the balance of power in the region. Third, Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban and its continued war on terror will have to be evaluated objectively. Pakistan may have to come clean about its collaboration with Taliban. There is no room for so-called strategic ambiguity on this score.

Having said so, the hardening of the Afghan and Indian policy on Pakistan, aided by the US prompting, will not help ease the situation for President Ghani. There is no need to muddle the already chaotic situation by introducing a country determined to destabilise Pakistan, which suffered the most from instability in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government and the Taliban have to create a new avenue for peaceful negotiations to move ahead. India cannot help the Afghan government in its quest for national conciliation, as the Taliban do not trust India. The US, being the culprit in the eyes of the Taliban, has slim chances to serve as an effective facilitator. That leaves Pakistan, China, Iran and the Central Asian Republics to resolve the differences between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The path of reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban is steep and strewn with sharp-edged stones. The walk will not be steady, but both the parties must not falter in their efforts and keep trying to address sincerely each other’s concerns.

Pakistan must keep pushing harder for strategically dependable normal relations with Afghanistan. Pakistan is advised to disregard that Afghanistan is a ‘congenital brother’ of Pakistan, as claimed by Hamid Karzai in 2011 and later propagated by our Kabul Embassy as the most wonderful happening in bilateral relations. It is not too late to treat each other as normal states whose prosperity and development are intrinsically interlinked.

The elites in both countries must own and adopt their pronouncements, ensuring a win-win situation for both. Eventually, they will have time and opportunity to maximise their interests by managing each other’s concerns and aspirations.

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