The bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are underpinned by unprecedented warmth and mutual trust since the establishment of the National Unity Government in Kabul. The main factors that have contributed for the positive development is the new leadership in Kabul and the new military leadership in Pakistan. Both sides has expressed great desire to start a new chapter in bilateral relations.
Since December, 2014 a series of high-level exchanges have taken place between Afghan and Pakistani government officials to explore areas of mutual cooperation. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Raheel Sharif, and Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Rizwan Akhtar have made several separate visits to Kabul.
On May 12, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Mohammad Nawaz Sharif also led a high-level government delegation to Kabul for a tête-à-tête with President Ghani to discuss the situation with special emphasis on efforts being made to bring the Taliban onto the negotiation table. This was Premier Sharif’s first visit to Afghanistan after the establishment of National Unity Government in Kabul.
Though, the outcome of these visit and talks are not clear as no real work has been done on the ground, yet it gives optimism to the government of Afghanistan that Pakistan has changed its Afghan policy. However, the Afghan people remains vigilant and skeptical about Sharif’s vision towards Afghanistan. It is precisely because of Sharif’s previous role in backing the mujahedin resistance against the government of Mohammad Najibullah’s in 1990, culminating in a change of government that plunged Afghanistan into years of civil war. It was Sharif who played the key role in dismantling the Afghan security forces in 1992 and fulfilling the mission of bringing Afghanistan into “Pakistan’s sphere of influence”. It was also Sharif’s government that officially recognized the Taliban regime in Kabul on 25 May 1997. Sharif went a step further and openly praised Taliban and their policies in Afghanistan during his failed attempts to introduce Sharia law in Pakistan through a constitutional amendment in 1998.
Premier Sharif and the army establishment of Pakistan share much in common and both have a proven track record of proximity to the Afghan Taliban. Though, hostile in the past, Premier Sharif’s new approach towards Afghanistan is encouraging. In his recent visit to Kabul Sharif demonstrated a positive change in his vision about Afghanistan
“Any effort by any militant or group to destabilize Afghanistan will be dealt with severely and such elements will be outlawed and hunted down,” Premier Sharif said at a joint appearance with President Ghani after their talks at the presidential palace in Kabul. “I assure you, Mr. President, that the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan,” he added.
He also denounced the Afghan Taliban’s spring offensive. Premier Nawaz said that Islamabad and Kabul recognized that an enduring peace in Afghanistan would be a distant dream, without an inclusive intra-Afghan reconciliation. “I reaffirmed Pakistan’s full support for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process and assured the president of making all possible efforts in this regard.”
This is the first time in Pakistan’s history that both military establishment and civilian government adopts a common and positive approach towards Afghanistan.
Yet skeptic may ask what persuaded Pakistan to rethink its Afghan policy?
Today’s Pakistan is not the Pakistan of 2001. The malaise of corruption is rampant; economic, energy and security sectors are in shambles. Pakistan is facing challenges and threats from within its borders. The battle of Baloch people for a free state and the Tahrik Taliban of Pakistan (TTP) insurgency increases and the direction of war moves from the tribal areas into the country’s major cities.
In recent years, the Pakistan military establishment has come to realize that it has no choice but to take action against the militancy and bury the philosophy of good terrorists and bad terrorist.
The military establishment of Pakistan understands that political stability is necessary in order to combat militancy. It was not a coincidence that for the first time in Pakistan’s history the military establishment allowed a civilian government of Asif Zardari to complete its five-year mandate. The army’s refusal to interfere in the parliamentary process indicates their acceptance that the country could not afford instability in this arena with the Taliban threat looming over the head.
Along with internal political stability, the Pakistan military establishment also understands that this is time to stop its proxy war in Afghanistan. With a President like Ashraf Ghani on one side and the TTP on the other, Pakistan would be going the path of suicide if it continue supporting Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan also understands that it faces no threat from Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan is afraid of Indian influence in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Guardian, Musharraf admitted that when he was in power, Pakistan sought to undermine the government of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai because Karzai had “helped India stab Pakistan in the back”. But now the time had come to “totally cooperate” with Ashraf Ghani, who Musharraf believes is “the last hope for peace in the region”.However, India doesn’t think the way Pakistan do. India, indeed, is running an economic race with China to transform Asia and become a global economic power.
The international pressure on Pakistan to destroy the safe heavens of terrorist and put an end to its three decade long covert war seems to have compelled the leaders of Pakistan to rethink its Afghan policy and stop supporting Taliban. In addition, Saudi Arabia a key regional player and China, Pakistan’s closest ally are also emerging from shadows and are ready to play a more constructive role in bringing peace to the region. Both nations have expressed their support for the peace initiative of President Ghani.
China is increasingly worried about Uighur militants using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a haven. After a landmark visit of President Ashraf Ghani to China in October last year the Chinese government announced its full support the Afghan peach process. Beijing’s efforts include an invitation for the Taliban to visit China, which was accepted by the Taliban. Beijing has also sent envoys to meet with Taliban representatives to encourage talks.
Now that China and Saudi Arabia are on the Afghan side, it is very unlikely that Pakistan would try to thwart the Afghan peace process by continuing its covert war in Afghanistan.
Change in the Afghan approach
President Ghani declared his agenda of political and economic reforms after his crystal clear victory in election. President Ghani understands that ending the war as the only way to rescue Afghanistan’s economy, therefore peace with the Taliban is his top priority. President Ghani widely traveled to gain regional and international support for his peace efforts.
In addition, President Ghani has made it clear for both Pakistan and Taliban; “The war has been imposed on Afghanistan, and the Afghans are determined not to ever bow to the imposed war, however peace remains a sacred goal for Afghan government”. “We will respond to the imposed war with war, without forgetting the sacred goal of peace,” said President Ghani in a press conference.
For the first time the Afghan president give a clear message to both Pakistan and Taliban.
For Taliban, it simply means, we will fight back, if you kill our people we will kill you.
For Pakistan, the meaning is clearer, you send a suicide bomber to Kabul, and we will send it to Pakistan, not to Peshawar or Karachi but to Lahore. You support Afghan Taliban, we will support TTP and Baloch Freedom movement. You (Pakistan) shelter Taliban and Haqqani network, we will turn Afghanistan into a safe haven for TTP and Baloch freedom movement.
The Pakistani leadership, both military and civilian fully understand that Ghani is not Hamid Karzai. Ghani, simply means business. He knows what he wants and how to get it.
Looking back at the history of Pakistan and its relation with Afghanistan and particularly with the United States its extremely challenging for the people of Afghanistan to trust Pakistan. There is still a danger that the military establishment of Pakistan may continue its duplicity. It was indeed Pakistan, who was the main ally of the United States in the war against terror and received millions of dollars to combat terrorism but it secretly produced and supported terrorist who killed more 2000 American soldiers and thousands of innocent people in Afghanistan. And yes, it was Pakistan that was fighting against Al-Qaeda but sheltered its leader near its capital city, Islamabad. It is hugely important for both the Afghan and Pakistan government to ensure that things are different this time. Pakistan should put its words into action to gain Afghan trust.
Ahmad Hasib Farhan is a graduate of Kabul University and holds a Master degree from Japan in Public Policy and Economics. Farhan is an Afghan analyst and commentator on political and socio-economic affairs in Afghanistan.