Sharif And Ghani Take Tentative Steps Forward
NEW DELHI: Seeking to overcome a relationship fraught with tensions, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani -- who has concluded a two day visit to Islamabad -- vowed to usher in economic cooperation and a joint mechanism for tackling terrorism in the region.
Afghan-Pakistan relations, which hit a historic low under the presidency of Hamid Karzai over the accusation that Pakistan was encouraging and supporting cross-border terrorism, seem to be set on a alleviatory path with the new Afghan President’s first visit to the neighbouring country -- his third international visit in the two months of presidency.
Speaking at a joint news conference, President Ghani said, “We have overcome obstacles of 13 years in three days… We will not permit the past to destroy the future.” ““We have begun a comprehensive dialogue on security so that all dimensions of our mutual security can be discussed, delineated and benchmarked processes can be arrived at to build confidence,” the Afghan President said.
PM Sharif called Ghani a “dear brother,” adding that the two countries had signed agreements enabling cooperation on train and road links, trade and defence, border and energy. “We reaffirm our resolve to forge a robust economic partnership by expanding trade, promoting investment, improving infrastructure, building road and rail links and enhancing energy collaboration,” the Pakistani Prime Minister said.
“Our two countries face formidable challenges, including extremism and terrorism, a precarious security environment and trans-national crimes,” Sharif said. ““I am convinced that we can effectively meet them, through common resolve and common endeavours.”
Reiterating that a stable Afghanistan was crucial to the region’s stability, Sharif, referring to Ghani’s recent invitation to the Afghan Taliban to join a dialogue process, said, ““I also reaffirm Pakistan’s support for an intra-Afghan reconciliation process that the new government is initiating. This process, we agreed, must be fully Afghan led and Afghan owned.”
Referring to terrorism -- a key reason for the deteriorating ties -- Ghani said that instability in Pakistan affects Afghanistan, and vice versa. “That’s where I think our common understanding of new threats will enable us to delineate pathways where actions will be concrete and speak louder than words,” Ghani concluded.
Pakistani media has been describing the visit as a “fence mending mission,” with a transfer of power in Kabul perhaps transforming a relationship thus far marred by mistrust to one based on cooperation. The dip in ties was evident in Karzai’s farewell address, with the outgoing president saying, “Today, I tell you again that the war in Afghanistan is not our war, but imposed on us and we are the victims,” and adding that, “No peace will arrive unless the U.S. or Pakistan want it." In the same vein, Karzai, whilst addressing the Afghan parliament a few months ago had said, that the war in Afghanistan had been “imposed” on the country and that the US should demonstrate seriousness about bringing peace to the war-torn country by targeting “terrorist sanctuaries” and countries that support “terrorism” - a reference to Pakistan.
Pakistan downplayed the remark, with the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam avoiding a direct reaction to the statement, and instead, addressing the issue rather indirectly when probed at a later date. “We face common challenges and have to confront them through collaboration… There will be a new government in Afghanistan shortly and as I said earlier, we look forward to working closely with it.”
The reason, as mentioned, for the dip in relations is militancy. There have been two developments that had increased Afghanistan’s concern that Pakistan is directly or indirectly, strengthening the Afghan Taliban. One, with the Pakistani military launching Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, several thousand militants have crossed the border into neighbouring Afghanistan.
Although Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a cross border agreement to monitor this movement, the process itself was fraught with tensions, with Karzai demanding that Pakistan meet a series of conditions as a prerequisite for his cooperation.
In a letter handed over to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by Karzai’s top security advisor during a one day visit to Islamabad, the Afghan President stated outlined the following conditions: “(1) all terrorists are targeted without discrimination, (2) civilians are not harmed in the fight against terror, (3) Pakistan releases all detained Afghan Taliban leaders who support peace in Afghanistan, (4) all terrorist hideouts and support centres are eliminated, (5) Pakistan stops artillery shelling on Afghan territory, (6) Pakistan and Afghanistan coordinate their anti-terrorism efforts with important regional nations like India and China, (7) there should be a roadmap for bilateral coordination and contact to take the war on terror forward.”
The letter came a few days after tensions rose between the two countries following an allegation that linked the killing of three soldiers and eight civilians in Dangam district, eastern Kunar province, to Pakistani soldiers. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmad Shakib Mustaghni had said that “Pakistani forces, wearing civilian clothes, carried out the attack” in Dangam district.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement in response, rejecting the allegations and asking the “Afghan government to refrain from taking any action that may be detrimental to peace and stability on the border.”
These tensions, although exacerbated recently, are not new. Afghan officials have long blamed Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) for nurturing and supporting militancy across the border. Quoted in the Washington Post this week, Afghan interior minister Mohammad Umer Daudzai explained the rationale behind this suspicion when he said, “We know they [Pakistan] have not given up their dream of controlling Afghanistan. They want Afghanistan to be their satellite.”
Pakistan points out that they too are suffering from the same terrorist acts on their own soil. In the same article in the Post, Gen. Asim Bajwa, a spokesman for the Pakistani military said, “We have made it very clear that Pakistan is determined to eliminate all terrorists and sanctuaries from Pakistan and is also committed to ensure that our soil is never used for any terrorist activity abroad.”
This links to the second recent development that has added to Afghanistan’s paranoia. A few months ago, the Punjab Taliban -- an influential militant faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) -- declared that it would abandon violence within Pakistan, and focus its energy toward Afghanistan instead. “We will confine our practical jihadist role to Afghanistan in view of deteriorating situation in the region and internal situation of Pakistani jihadist movement,” Punjabi Taliban chief Ismatullah Muawiya was quoted in a pamphlet circulated to the media. The internal situation of the Pakistani Jihadist movement refers to setbacks being faced by the TTP, most recently, the breakaway of a faction led by Jamatul Ahrar -- which claims it has the support of 70-80 percent of the TTP’s fighters and commanders -- from the main TTP bloc led by Mullah Fazlullah.
Whether the Pakistani government is actively supporting militants in Afghanistan or not, the fact is that the militant movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is influenced in turn by the other. In that respect, with militancy in Pakistan witnessing a reorganisation in the face of a sustained military operation, and militancy in Afghanistan seeing an increase in attacks and resulting in twice the number of fatalities as in the corresponding period last year, it is in the interest of both the Pakistani and Afghan government to cooperate and mend ties.
Fortunately, Ashraf Ghani seems willing to try and rebuild the trust between the two countries. “Dr Ashraf Ghani and his team want a brotherly relationship with Pakistan and other neighbours,” Ghani’s spokesperson Abbas Noyan told Voice of America a few days before the swearing in ceremony. The tension does not help us. We are looking to forging good ties [with Pakistan] and engaging in joint ventures and projects to help each other,” Noyan said, whilst reiterating that the it was now up to Pakistan to rebuild this lost trust by addressing Kabul’s very valid concerns.
This two-day visit is a step in the right direction for rebuilding trust and forming a basis for cooperation in the future.