Despite pledges, apprehensions, acknowledgements and strong commitments, Pakistan and Afghanistan still do not have a simpatico relationship. However, Afghan president Dr Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan on December 9 to participate in the fifth ‘Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process’ Conference is being seen as a ray of hope for cordial Pak-Afghan relations. Both the neighbouring states have not yet been able to establish an environment of mutual trust and cooperation.
Ashraf Ghani since assuming the office of the President of Afghanistan has taken many steps to address Pakistan’s concerns especially that India is making inroads in Afghanistan. To bridge the trust deficit between the two countries, he visited Pakistan in November 2014 and besides meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he went to the General Headquarters (GHQ) of Pakistan Army as well. Thenceforth, the relations saw an upward trajectory and proceeded towards normality. But, some elements within Ghani administration started the vicious propaganda that Pakistan would not deliver; advising Ghani not to be much ambitious. However, Ghani stuck with his policy of burying the hatchet and taking Pakistan’s help in bringing peace to Afghanistan. During this landmark visit, both the states vowed to fight jointly against terrorism and militancy on both sides of the Durand Line. The horrific attack on APS Peshawar on the fateful day of December 16, 2014 also brought both countries closer in terms of cooperation against the militants. Afghan government launched an operation in country’s border areas on December 23, 2014 to flush out masterminds of APS attack. On the other hand, Pakistan Army also intensified its campaign, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, against the terrorists in North Waziristan.
Ghani expected that Pakistan would deliver on its promise of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Pak-Afghan bilateral relationship fared smoothly. A further bold step was seen in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), and its Afghan counterpart National Directorate of Security (NDS). This too faced severe criticism especially by the anti-Pakistan elements in Afghan government.
Taliban attacks in Afghanistan continued with high intensity and nothing practical about the peace process in Afghanistan, for which Pakistan had promised to play its role, was witnessed. Resultantly, Ghani openly blamed that “Pakistan is engaged in an undeclared war in Afghanistan.” This was the first antagonistic statement from the Afghan president.
Later, on June 22, Taliban launched an attack on the Afghan parliament. This further escalated the tensions and an unending blame game against Pakistan started to such an extent that many reminded of Hamid Karzai who had been maligning Pakistan during his whole tenure as the president.
However, a whiff of fresh air came for Ghani when Pakistan arranged the Murree round of peace talks on July 7, 2015. The Afghan delegation and Taliban met and discussed confidence-building measures in the presence of Pakistani, Chinese and US observers. The second round was all set to be held on July 31, however, on July 29, the news of Taliban supremo Mullah Umar’s death was broke thus jeopardizing the whole peace process.
The 2015 spring offensive has been the deadliest since the US occupation of the country. The fall of Kunduz further deteriorated the ties between Kabul and Islamabad as Afghan media started a 24/7 campaign to malign Pakistan and blame that it has its involvement in the debacle. This further aggravated the situation and Ghani stated that the relations of Pakistan and Afghanistan were merely those of two neighbouring states.
The core concerns between Afghanistan and Pakistan are militancy in border areas and the India’s making of inroads in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants Kabul to be free of Indian influence but Afghanistan does not want to lose as it is a major donor to Afghanistan.
The militants’ safe havens on both sides of the Durand Line will remain intact unless foreign presence on Afghan soil is ended either in the shape of US or India. The presence of these countries in Afghanistan is a potential threat to Pakistan’s security.
The success of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban will be deterrence not only for both sides but also for Pakistan and China who are suffering from militancy. When there would be no militancy in Afghanistan, there would no threat to Pakistan from TTP or other terrorist organizations and that from Uighurs in Xinjiang to China. Besides, it will also augment China’s economic and strategic presence in the region in the shape of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Silk Road to Central Asia.
The meeting of Ashraf Ghani and Nawaz Sharif at Paris climate summit and the Pakhtun delegation’s recent visit to Kabul paved the way for both countries to re-engage in a meaningful dialogue. In addition to it, Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan on December 9 for attending the fifth “Heart of Asia—Istanbul Process” conference may be key to breaking the ice between Kabul and Islamabad. Still both the states have time to reconcile and sort out their mutual differences in order to bridge the extant trust deficit. The resumption of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban will be a positive step to justify Pakistan’s sincerity in Afghanistan’s stability.
The trust deficit should not remain limited to only political matters but also on the intelligence affairs. Most of the officials of National Directorate of Security (NDS) of Afghanistan have been trained by the Indian spy agency RAW that is why they have mostly negative attitude towards Pakistan. The ISI-NDS intelligence-sharing MoU was a great achievement and a way to bring closer both the intelligence agencies.
This is, perhaps, an opportune time for both the states to resolve their differences and move forward for peace in the region. Major international actors are supporting the Afghan peace process that will ultimately bring close both the countries to bridge their trust deficit.
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan should not let this opportunity go waste.
Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai is a Peshawar-based independent researcher and political analyst and Firdous Jamal has a master’s degree in Political Science.