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Are We Finally Seeing a Breakthrough in Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations?

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Are We Finally Seeing a Breakthrough in Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations?

Recent exchanges, and the involvement of China and the US, hints that this time may be different.

Are We Finally Seeing a Breakthrough in Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations?
Credit: Pakistan ISPR

Nothing can be more reassuring, if taken at face value, than a tweet in Pashto, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, by the director-general of the Pakistan military’s media wing congratulating the Afghan cricket squad for its victory against Bangladesh.

“We congratulate the Afghan cricket team winning the series against Bangladesh, which also played well,” said the tweet, from Major-General Asif Ghafoor’s personal Twitter account on June 7.

Another tweet, again both in English and Pashto, from his official twitter account on June 12 stated that “Pakistan wishes to see National Unity Government and US/NATO succeeding to bring peace in Afghanistan.”

Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) is the mouthpiece of Pakistan’s army. The two statements from ISPR’s powerful chief indicate an apparent shift in Pakistan’s approach toward Afghans and their country.

The unprecedented tweets – both in language and message — came days after a high-powered Afghan security delegation led by National Security Advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar held meetings in Islamabad discussing a wide range of issues, including trade, business, people-to-people contacts, intelligence cooperation, and an end to the long-running “blame game” between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Then on June 12, Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa paid a visit to Afghanistan for more talks.

The tweets, the Islamabad meetings, and Bajwa’s Kabul visit coincided with the first-ever ceasefire in Afghanistan and telephone talks between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk. That call was followed by another call between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bajwa – both interactions are seen as ice-breaking contacts between Pakistan and the United States.

So here is the takeaway, in a nutshell: Whether due to prevailing common sense or pressure from the big powers – China and the United States – Afghanistan and Pakistan are gradually inching toward a better understanding of each other and a belated realization that peace will be an outcome of mutual collaboration.

All earlier steps toward peace and stability — some of which may rightly be termed half-hearted and with ulterior motives — between the two estranged neighbors quickly floundered, primarily because of terrorist attacks followed by mutual finger-pointing. Given that, one of the foremost questions this time is how to avoid the blame game.

Ending the Blame Game

Attempts at rapprochement include the meetings between then-leaders Perez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai in each other’s capitals, and one meeting in the presence of then-U.S. President George Bush at the White House. More recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met in Islamabad, followed by and Pakistan’s then-army chief Raheel Sharif making several visits to Kabul.

The stakes had never been higher than in 2014, when Ghani arrived in Islamabad soon after assuming power in Kabul. Besides watching a cricket match with Nawaz Sharif, Ghani also visited the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army to meet Raheel Sharif.

The visit to the GHQ in the city of Rawalpindi was the first by an Afghan president in decades and was optimistically reported as a step toward unwavering cooperation.

Months later, however, the two sides gradually returned to their allegations and counter-allegations. Each country accuses the other of supporting proxies and groups creating instability and carrying out terrorist attacks on the other side of the Durand Line, the colonial-era border dividing the two countries.

While Afghanistan had been accusing Pakistan of propping up and providing sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban on its soil, Pakistan has also started pointing accusing fingers at Afghanistan, particularly after the December 16, 2014 terrorist attack on a military-run school in Peshawar claimed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP. Pakistan believes the TTP is enjoying safe havens and getting support from across the border in Afghanistan.

One of the foremost points of Bajwa’s June 12 visit to Kabul visit was how to build trust and avoid this blame game. Intelligence cooperation is said to be the other area where the two countries are believed to have achieved a considerable progress.

A Pakistan military spokesperson mentioned the same during his June 3 news conference, where he also elaborated on his institution’s policy toward a host of national and international issues.

The end to the blame game was in fact agreed upon during the April 6 meeting in Kabul between Ghani and Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi under the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS).

The seven principles in that plan included “undertaking action against irreconcilable and fugitive elements” on both sides; denying territories to anti-state groups or individuals (on either side); creating a joint supervision, coordination, and confirmation mechanism through Liaison Officers (LOs) for the realization of the agreed actions; avoiding land and air violations of each other’s territory; and avoiding the public blame game by using the cooperation mechanisms to respond to mutual contentions and concerns.

Since April 6, the day when Abbasi visited Kabul and agreed on the APAPPS principles, several attacks have been carried out both by the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Afghan Taliban, but unlike in the past, we have not seen the same sort of finger pointing on the official level. Afghan officials are mostly tight-lipped as far as naming and blaming.

Meanwhile, the unexpected ceasefire announced by Ghani — followed by a similar declaration from the Taliban — came days after a high-level security delegation led by Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar visited Islamabad and held parleys with top Pakistani officials.

China’s Role

Bilateral meetings have considerably increased since the middle of 2017, a time that witnessed a visible increase in terrorist attacks in and around Kabul. The upsurge in Taliban violence and the high toll on human life automatically raised the level of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan. At that time, the Chinese sent their foreign minister to defuse the tensions.

A long-time ally of Pakistan, China has vast business and strategic interests in the region and peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a must to safeguard those interests. On the security front, China is concerned about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan as any further instability in that country will strengthen the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is believed to be in alliance with the ISKP.

In December 2017, China organized a meeting between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss security and other related issues. It was the first trilateral meeting after an agreement on the establishment of a dialogue mechanism among the three countries in June that year.

Given this backdrop, observers should pay attention to China’s role in nudging and pushing the leaders of its two recalcitrant neighbors to come to terms for the broader object of peace and security in their respective countries and the region.

It merits a mention here that China also enjoys unique leverage over the Taliban, mainly because of its neutral position during the decades of war and the situation in post-9/11 Afghanistan.

The United States’ Backing

Soon after the June 7 ceasefire announcement by the Afghan government, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Mulk and the country’s army chief received calls from top U.S. officials that surprised many mainly because of the ongoing deadlock between Pakistan and the United States.

In a tit-for-tat action, the two countries had imposed travel restrictions on each other’s diplomats, the latest measures in the apparently nose dive relations between the two anti-terror war allies.

Breaking the ice, U.S. Vice President Pence spoke to Mulk, while Pompeo and Bajwa “discussed the need for political reconciliation in Afghanistan.”

This was the first contact between Pompeo and Bajwa since the former’s appointment as secretary of state in March 2018. The fresh contacts not only signal the mending of U.S.-Pakistan ties but also signify U.S. involvement in the recent developments, including fresh consultation between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the back-to-back ceasefire announcements by Ghani and the Taliban leadership.

Active involvement from Beijing with the United States fully on board could provide stable guarantees for a meaningful approach toward better understanding between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That, in turn, could lead to a meaningful dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.