Beyond doubt

Will the blossoming friendship between Kabul and Islamabad survive the Taliban's spring offensive?

Beyond doubt
The fast-paced developments in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations suggest that the bonhomie that began late last year with the installation of the National Unity Government in Kabul is now blossoming in spite of all doubts.

The historic agreement between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and National Directorate of Security (NDS) on counter-terrorism is not just another one of the several accords that the two countries have inked, but points towards an evolving pattern of closer cooperation between the two countries on counter-terrorism – an issue that soured the ties for most of the past decade and half.

The agreement that centers on coordinating intelligence operations, joint probe of terrorism suspects and cooperation for training of NDS personnel and provision of equipment to the Afghan intelligence agency is more significantly a manifestation of the trust the two countries are now ready to repose in each other despite lingering doubts.
Nawaz Sharif announced his government's changed policy towards Afghan Taliban in Kabul

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif were the architects of a new relationship, in which they have made a lot of political investment. While the protests in Afghan parliament over the deal between the two intelligence organizations were symptomatic of the abiding issues in the ties, the strong defense put up by the Ghani government and the NDS itself is a sufficient proof that Kabul is convinced not only about the usefulness of such a cooperation, but also about the steps Islamabad is taking to deal with cross-border terrorism and promote peace and reconciliation.

President Ghani has so far steadfastly stuck on to the policy of improving ties with Pakistan despite the continuing Taliban violence and is apparently determined to continue it for some time.

The agreement between NDS and ISI is not unprecedented per se. The two intelligence organizations had, under US pressure, signed a similar agreement in 2006, which remained in force till 2009, but it was then hardly implemented because of the mutual mistrust.

The ground situation has, however, changed altogether and there is a mutually shared desire to improve the ties. Additionally, the military and intelligence establishments, which were in the past blamed for tensions in the ties, are now the ones pushing the new arrangement.
"The enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan"

The latest intelligence agreement was preceded by a number of choreographed steps by both sides to restore each other’s confidence after years of vitriolic acrimony.

President Ghani set the tone for rapprochement during his visit to Pakistan last November by opening the trip with a meeting with Gen Sharif at General Headquarters where he pledged stronger counter-terrorism cooperation. The test of Mr Ghani’s commitment came exactly a month later when the tragic Peshawar School carnage took place and Gen Sharif immediately flew to Kabul carrying ‘proofs’ of involvement of Afghanistan based groups of Pakistani militants. The Afghan president obliged and the two sides went on hold coordinated operations on their respective sides of the border.

Then came the first batch of Afghan military cadets for training at Pakistan Military Academy Kakul – a move that carried lot of symbolism. Days later Gen Sharif traveled to Kabul to tell the Afghan leadership that Taliban were ready to hold dialogue with Afghan government. Though the promised talks are yet to take place, the initiative signaled renewed efforts by Pakistan to help Afghan government reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Afghan Chief of General Staff Gen Sher Karimi was also invited by the Army to preside over the passing out parade at PMA – a rare honour for a commander of a foreign army.

The upward swing in ties was, and continues to be, in danger of being buffeted by Taliban’s Spring Offensive that has led to sharp increase in violence in Afghanistan, but thePakistani government moved quickly to salvage the situation by condemning Taliban violence in Afghanistan and equating it with terrorism.

The move that came at a time when pessimism was getting the better of even an optimist like Mr Ghani, couldn’t have been better timed. President Ghani was reported to have spoken during his visit to Delhi of blocking Pakistan’s access to Central Asia through Afghan territory, and had also soon after PM Sharif’s arrival in Kabul tweeted: “Friendship with Afghanistan will be determined by who stands with us now.”

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif virtually announced his government’s changed policy towards (Afghan) Taliban while in Kabul, where he had gone along with a high powered delegation cosisting of Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Mr Sartaj Aziz, Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, ISI director general Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar and other senior officials on a day long trip on May 12.

“We strongly condemn increase in violence and Operation Azm offensive by Afghan Taliban. Continuation of such offensive and attacks will be construed as terrorist acts and we condemn such attacks in strongest terms,” Mr Sharif said in the strongest ever statement as yet by a Pakistani leader on Taliban militancy and went on to declare that “the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan.”

A closer look at these developments reveals the contours of the emerging strategic template, which is for Pakistan and Afghanistan to look united on the issue of militancy, while addressing the fault lines of their bilateral relations. It’s possibly why there is so much focus in building closer defense and intelligence relations.

The perceptible change in Pakistan’s position, while driven by the desire for having better relations with neighbouring Afghanistan was also pushed by certain domestic dynamics. The government’s priority objective of stabilizing the ailing economy firstly cannot be achieved with an unstable country in the immediate neighbourhood and lack of security. But, more worryingly intelligence agencies were concerned about reports hinting at a possibility of cooperation between Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan comrades. The two have worked together in the past and shared resources, but the Afghan militants had largely avoided getting involved in militancy within Pakistan. Fresh intelligence had warned that could change.

The fact that Afghan Taliban did not oblige Pakistan on the issue of starting a peace dialogue with the Afghan government made the strategists in Islamabad more concerned about a scenario where the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban could join hands. Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif in an earlier visit to Afghanistan had conveyed to President Ghani Taliban’s willingness to join an intra-Afghan dialogue, but that could not happen due to internal divisions in Taliban ranks over the issue of making peace with Afghan government.

The progress in Islamabad-Kabul ties has put the Afghan Taliban leadership, already facing internal pressures from anti-peace factions, in an extremely tight spot. Taliban leaders contacted for response on Islamabad’s new position prefer to avoid commenting. Their predicament is that they cannot afford to upset someone that has hosted them, and is aware of their networking and operations. The Pak-Afghan intelligence cooperation accord must have sent a very clear signal to the Taliban that they are left with not many alternatives, except for joining the peace process.

Alongside the growing pressure on Taliban, TTP would also be feeling the heat as it is pushed out of its sanctuaries in Afghanistan.