Af-Pak Diary

Resetting Kabul-Islamabad Relations: Three Key Issues

01 Dec, 2014    ·   4762

D Suba Chandran lists key issues that will need to be addressed for the recent improvement in the Af-Pak bilateral to become sustainable

In November 2014, the new President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, made his maiden visit to Pakistan, one that is being projected as a “breakthrough” in the bilateral relations between the two countries. Only recently, the renowned international research organization – the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report on the need for Pakistan to reset its relationship with Afghanistan.

Today, after Ghani’s visit, is the Pak-Afghan relationship ready for a reset?

The visit of the new Afghan President to Pakistan was undertaken after a thorough homework by both sides. Ghani’s Pakistan visit was preceded by multiple visits from Pakistan to Afghanistan at the highest levels over recent weeks, that included the visits of the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff (COAS) (November 2014), the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (November 2014) and the Pakistani National Security Advisor (October 2014).

In return, the Afghan President received a red carpet welcome by Pakistan and had extensive discussions with the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the COAS, and his Pakistani counterpart, Mamnoon Hussain. It is possible, there is a better expectation and even a euphoria within Pakistan about the new Afghan President; Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was not liked by many within the establishment. During Karzai’s period, bilateral relations between the two countries had hit a low, with accusations and counter-accusations. As a result, Pakistan now sees the new President from a different perspective. The fact that he had hosted the aforementioned Pakistani officians within two months of assuming office also highlights the Afghan response.

The joint discussions during the visit, though did not make any major breakthrough, touched upon two crucial aspects. First was on increasing the Kabul-Islamabad economic engagement; both countries agreed to expand trade relations and have set a target of 5 billion dollars by 2017. Both sides also agreed to work on joint projects on infrastructure. In that context, the recent developments on an electricity grid linking Pakistan with Central Asia via Afghanistan – the CASA 1000 – holds new opportunities for both countries.

Second, the joint discussions also focussed on Afghanistan’s security forces receiving military training from Pakistan. The same was discussed when Pakistan’s COAS visited Afghanistan in November, during which he was reported to have volunteered to provide military training to the Afghan troops. Though Pakistan had offered the same earlier as well, Karzai was hesitant to accept, as, at that time, there was deep distrust in Kabul towards Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Given the nature of civil-military relations within Pakistan, the offer to train Afghan security forces should have come from the establishment and not from the prime minister. What does the acceptance of military training by Pakistan mean for Afghanistan? Is there a greater trust in Kabul vis-à-vis the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi?

The above would also imply that there is an understanding between both sides on militant sanctuaries on either sides of the Durand Line. Karzai was apprehensive of the Pakistani establishment’s support to the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network; and the latter was suspicious of former’s support to the Pakistani Taliban, especially Mullah Fazlullah. The fact that the joint discussions avoided discussing this issue in public does hint towards an understanding between the new leaderships in Kabul, and Islamabad.

These are good news for Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.

Is the Afghan-Pakistan Relationship Ready for a Reset?
Much will depend on three key issues: First, the establishment in Pakistan and its linkages with the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network. The top leadership may have decided to reset the relationship, but does the entire structure, down to the operative in the field, perceive Afghanistan in the same way? The reported “sections” or “cells” within the establishment and their role whether in orchestrating a political conspiracy (as has been the case during the recent political protests by Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan) or clandestinely supporting the multiple Taliban franchises have been reported sufficiently by the media within Pakistan itself.

Second, will the multiple franchisees of the Taliban – the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions – agree to such a reset? How does one interpret the suicide bomb during the last week of November in Afghanistan’s Paktika province that killed over 50 people during a volleyball match? And another attack on a British vehicle and foreign guest house in Kabul, killing six?

Finally, what would Pakistan expect from Afghanistan in return for the reset? And will Afghanistan be able to deliver the same? For example, what if the government in Kabul is unable to control its own provinces in eastern Afghanistan where the TTP finds sanctuary? And what if Islamabad expects Kabul to reduce the Indian footprint in Afghanistan?

The reset in bilateral relations should be welcome. It is timely and imperative. However, it is not going to be an easy task.