The South Asia Channel

An Olive Branch in AfPak

Afghanistan is trying to retool its rocky relationship with Pakistan. Will this great bargain pay off?

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shake hands 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)

Afghanistan and Pakistan are breaking off with the past, attempting to secure peace along their communal border. Since his September 2014 inauguration, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has visited Pakistan, promising a break from the dissension of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, and sent several delegations there on his behalf. Pakistani generals Raheel Sharif, the army chief of staff, and Rizwan Akhtar, the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence, have already visited Afghanistan five times. Ghani has even prioritized peace with Pakistan, delaying his visit to India to wait for the results of his olive branch to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Ghani has ordered the Afghan intelligence agency (the National Directorate of Security) to cooperate with Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in hunting down Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan leaders. Reports have even surfaced of joint raids between Afghan National Security Forces and the Pakistani army along the Durand line — the border between the countries — targeting Taliban positions on both sides. Furthermore, for the first time, Ghani sent a group of six Afghan National Army officers to receive military training at Pakistani military academies. Even Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, while acknowledging that Pakistan used proxies to undermine Karzai’s government, called for full cooperation with the new Afghan government. Conversely, former mujahedeen leaders have issued a public warning to the Afghan unity government stating that there will be dire consequences for any deals with made with Pakistan absent their consultation. All these diplomatic maneuvers have not yet led to any substantial dividend; however, they have made many commentators concerned that Ghani has played all his cards without garnering much return.

A key question following these diplomatic overtures remains: why is this new push so different from past initiatives and is it stable enough to benefit both sides?

The answer to this question is simple: although the longtime trust deficit between the two stands in the way of cooperation, Afghanistan and Pakistan must work together to tackle the extremism menacing their borders. This proxy war cannot continue forever — it has cost both countries hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced of millions of civilians, and wasted billions of dollars in socio-economic costs. But, like in the past, any one time tactical move to secure short-term interests is doomed to fail.

The results of a long-term plan are straightforward — Pakistan wants the eventual recognition of the Durand line, a friendly Afghan government with limited Indian influence, and the absence of the Indian military and diplomatic presence along the AfPak border. Pakistani military and intelligence agencies also want Taliban members to be part of the Afghan government and for the provinces along the AfPak border to be bequeathed to the Taliban network. On the other hand, Afghanistan wants Pakistan to stop supporting and harboring the Taliban and Haqqani network.

The new Afghan government is fractured, full of socio-political and economic vulnerabilities, teeming with internal rivalries and multiple centers of power. It lacks the authority to address contentious historical and political questions such as the Durand line, relations with Pakistan, and the Afghan peace process. In addition, a deep lack of trust between the political and military institutions, both within each country and between the two, has proved previous attempts at detente futile.

Outside actors such as India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States have a deep interest in the new developments between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the power to influence a deal. India — Pakistan’s bitter rival — and Russia — with its history of rocky ties with Pakistan — are wary of a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul. Iran hopes to stall the growing influence of the Shiite minority in Kabul whereas Saudi Arabia is interested in ensuring that a Sunni-friendly government assumes power. The United States is interested in avoiding the rebirth of terrorist sanctuaries and ensuring a safe withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. It is imperative that third parties’ interests be tempered by limiting communications and oversight of negotiations.

Decades of hostile exchanges on the international stage, proxy warfare, and economic blockades with one another cannot be solved by sporadic diplomatic visits or by the mere determination of the Afghan and Pakistani governments to cooperate. Rather, resolution requires the development of a long-term, systematic, and trusted mechanism to address the underlying root causes of the silent war between Afghanistan and Pakistan, develop a multi-pronged approach to build confidence between the nations, and structure a dialogue between all layers of power and policy-making in both countries — all without third-party involvement.


Tamim Asey is an independent researcher and writer based in Kabul and has served as a senior adviser to the Afghan government. The views expressed are his own.

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