Quick, quick, fix it before Uncle Sam calls

Ahead of US policy review for region, frayed Pak-Afghan ties mend

Quick, quick, fix it before Uncle Sam calls
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have renewed the resolve of their governments to jointly deal with the “common threat of terrorism” and cooperate to improve the economic conditions of their countries. This recent development over a telephone call capped a series of events in the often troubled Pak-Afghan relations, suggesting that the neighbours could be making progress after a stalemate.

President Ghani’s call to congratulate Mr Abbasi on becoming prime minister may have looked like diplomatic ritual, but the “very friendly” conversation between the two leaders, characterized as such by a senior diplomatic source, was a refreshing break from the usual exchange of barbs, and it could potentially lay the groundwork for a healthier relationship.

The warm conversation, it needs to be remembered, comes on the heels of a number of other events in the bilateral relationship over the past week or so, starting with a meeting between Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Ambassador of Afghanistan Dr Omar Zakhilwal for what was described by the latter as a “follow-up discussion on a range of issues, contributing to bilateral tension and how to go about resolving them”.

Then came the uncommon condemnation by COAS Gen Bajwa of an attack on a US military convoy in Kandahar in which two American soldiers were killed. There was also a visit by an Afghan military delegation to Peshawar. The message coming out of the corps-level Pak-Afghan meeting, which was also attended by directors-general of military operations (DGMOs) of both armies was that “peace and stability can best be achieved through complementary efforts and enhanced cooperation”.
Pak-Afghan developments are happening at a time when the Trump Administration has been struggling to complete its review of policy on Afghanistan and the region, more aptly depicted as the South Asia review

Meanwhile, unconfirmed media reports hint towards Pakistani authorities pressuring the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network to leave their territory.

This all sounds very exciting even though issues persist, as flagged by statements like the ones made by Afghanistan’s Kunar governor and the anti-Pakistan rhetoric emanating from Afghan media. The developments in ties, nevertheless, mark a serious attempt at recasting a relationship that had been teetering on the brink of a collapse. They, in fact, represent a noticeable change in tone and outlook for the relationship.

What has triggered these events?

All of this is happening at a time when the Trump Administration has been struggling to complete its review of policy on Afghanistan and the region, more aptly depicted as the South Asia review. Statements by US officials and an assessment report by the State Department indicate that Washington is firmly holding onto its view that the insurgency in Afghanistan was being sustained from alleged Taliban and Haqqani Network sanctuaries on Pakistani soil. They lend credence to reports that the US could be mulling tougher action against Pakistan in order to supposedly force it to cooperate. It is, however, a matter of speculation how severe those coercive measures could be and whether or not they could be effective.

When the latest happenings on the Pak-Afghan front are seen in light of the mood in Washington, one cannot escape concluding that Pakistan is doing the right things at the right time to pre-empt any adverse move by the Trump Administration by addressing the prevailing “misperceptions” in the US. The Foreign Office, in the meantime, too has been exercising restraint and has been consistently putting out positive messages both on the US and Afghanistan, despite any temptation to respond aggressively.

Delays in the US policy review could breed uncertainty, but on the brighter side they have given Islamabad and Kabul a chance to reboot their ties.

The associate vice president of the Asia Center at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, Dr Moeed Yusuf, while speaking at the Center for International Strategic Studies, an Islamabad based think-tank, on ‘Trump Administration’s Prospective Policy towards Pakistan’ proposed that Pakistan should act against the Haqqani Network and Taliban in a verifiable manner. His contention was that this was the only way Islamabad could avoid a rupture in ties, which, if they do, would be mutually detrimental.

But how long could Pakistan continue on such a course? There are serious reservations about the Afghan intelligence agency NDS’s collaboration with India’s R&AW against Pakistan, the presence of sanctuaries of Pakistani terrorists on Afghan soil and a host of other security-related issues.

Afghanistan, therefore, needs to urgently reciprocate and not let the latest opportunity go to waste as have many in the past.

COAS Gen Bajwa put this message across: “We look forward to a trust-based mutual cooperation in this regard which can achieve the policy ends of enduring regional peace.”

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at mamoonarubab@gmail.com