The South Asia Channel

Baby Steps for AfPak Relations

Ghani has a clear vision for AfPak relations but genuine peace building deserves cautious optimism.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (2L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (3R) arrive for a ceremony at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad on November 15, 2014. Ghani made his first official trip to neighbouring Pakistan on November 14, seeking to improve ties crucial to his hopes of reviving Taliban peace talks as US troops end their 13-year war. AFP PHOTO/Farooq NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

Ashraf Ghani, the newly elected Afghan president, recently made a high profile visit to Pakistan with hopes of opening a new chapter in relations between the two neighboring countries. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani was more straightforward in conveying his message to the Pakistani leadership. His clarity of vision was widely recognized by both the Pakistani government and its political circles. As former advisor to Ghani when he chaired the security transition commission, I am well aware of his diplomatic skills and intellect. Yet, despite all optimism, there is no clear indication of a breakthrough in the near future.

Relations with Pakistan remained the toughest foreign policy challenge for former President Hamid Karzai during his more than a decade-long term in office. He was convinced that every effort was made, although with no achievement, to normalize ties with Pakistan. The former president blamed the military establishment rather than the civilian government in Pakistan as the main hurdle. During this period, the Afghan government clearly suffered from a lack of coherent strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan. Part of the complexity in formulating a well-defined foreign policy was due to the role of multiple international stakeholders and diverging political interests.

Now all eyes are on Ghani, who has a rich background in economics and state-building, to re-define complicated ties with Pakistan. It is assumed that friendly relations with Pakistan — based on mutual cooperation and respect — will eventually lead to a lasting peace in Afghanistan since the mainstream Afghan leadership strongly believes in a causal relationship between the level of insurgency in Afghanistan and the degree of Pakistani hostility.

The Pakistani military establishment has historically differentiated between the “good” and the “bad” Taliban. It considers as hostile only the group of Taliban militants that is terrorizing Pakistan. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s national security advisor, recently made a controversial statement that only aggravated the distrust, saying that his government will fight the Taliban only if it is a threat to Pakistan. In an interview, Aziz told BBC Urdu that Pakistan was not going to target militant groups that do not “pose a threat to the state.” This triggered strong reactions from the Afghan government and confirmed that Pakistan has been selective in dealing with various Taliban groups.

Oversimplification and not acknowledging the complexity of the Taliban politics remains a shortcoming of the Afghan government. Yet, under Ashraf Ghani, some efforts seem to be underway in that direction, although it is going to be a daunting task. Ever since the new national unity government has taken office, the number of terrorist attacks has drastically increased across the country, with Kabul being the main target. Nevertheless, Ghani’s message while speaking to BBC during the recent London conference was optimistic, despite high level of discomfort among Afghans.

True to his campaign promises, Ashraf Ghani has already initiated efforts to build the basic framework for peacemaking. Using regional economic integration as a basis for building trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan is Ghani’s main strategy for peace building. It is fortuitous that both Ghani and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, who comes from a business background, appreciate the role of economics in increasing mutual trust and building confidence. Therefore, it is time to partially replace geopolitics with geo-economics in order to find common ground for good neighborly relations.

How far Pakistan can go to use its influence on the Taliban in order for them to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government is anybody’s guess. But geopolitics could be the answer. Pakistan is seemingly stuck in the past still seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan. As long as it does not abandon this ambition, it will continue to have a soft corner for ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan and the status quo will remain. Further, Pakistan may also not be happy with the bilateral security agreement that Afghanistan recently signed with the United States. On the other hand, Afghanistan has assured that the agreement is no risk to Pakistan’s security.  It is time for the Pakistani establishment to have a new look into its traditional approach to Afghanistan. It makes more sense for Pakistan to want a friendly government in Afghanistan rather than a government that is subservient to Pakistan.

It is also difficult for Pakistan to come to terms with the fact that Afghanistan’s ties with its arch-rival India have been extremely cordial. India has invested tremendously in the development and stabilization efforts of a war-ravaged Afghanistan during the post-Taliban period. India has been a long-time friend of Afghanistan, yet, one cannot disregard the political delicacy of Afghan-India relations from the Pakistani perspective. At times, Pakistan fears that the Afghan government might choose India as its strategic partner at the cost of ignoring the former’s security concerns. Even worse, that Afghan soil might be used by India against Pakistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan has been assuring Pakistan directly and indirectly that its relationship with India should be viewed more independently without any linkage to the latter.

The new Ghani administration must be cognizant of the overall regional dynamics as well as international dimensions of its ties with Pakistan. Thus, there is potential for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to give a new definition to their relationship that might ultimately pave the way for genuine peace building across the region. Yet, Ghani cannot do anything unless his initiatives are reciprocated by Pakistan with a new vision that is forward-looking.


Ajmal Shams is President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party, better known as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party, and is based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He served as Policy Advisor to Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President, when he chaired the security transition commission. He mainly writes on political and developmental issues and has been published in the News International, the Gulf News, the Asia times, South Asia Magazine, and others.