Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has visited Afghanistan twice in the last four months in a bid to improve relations, but there has been no real breakthrough even though hopes were raised and a feel-good atmosphere was created after every trip to Kabul.
His October 2, 2017 visit to Kabul was hailed as an icebreaker as he and President Ashraf Ghani reportedly got along well. This was evident in the President’s changed tone, that began from the earlier hostility and moved towards friendly remarks stating that the two countries were starting a new era of cooperation. If one were to believe Afghan officials, an understanding was reached on certain issues and they received assurances that had the potential to break the impasse in the relationship. However, such assurances couldn’t have been one-sided as both sides had to do certain things to address each other’s concerns.
The first major task that Pakistan was supposed to accomplish concerning the issuance of a ‘fatwa’ (religious decree) by Pakistani religious scholars, failed to satisfy the Afghan government. Though more than 1,800 Pakistani ulema declared suicide bombings un-Islamic and decreed that Pakistan’s soil should not be used by armed groups to undertake attacks in other countries President Ghani argued that the ‘fatwa’ should have covered not only Afghanistan but also other Islamic countries and the world. It appears that the Afghan government would have specifically wanted the Pakistani ulema to also declare the Taliban-led war in Afghanistan as un-Islamic.
There have been other visits as well by senior civil and military officials, including the ones for meetings of joint working groups formed on Pakistan’s initiative to focus on specific issues. After the last such meeting in Islamabad recently, there was an honest admission of the fact that there had been no real progress in resolving contentious issues. Still the two sides have continued to agree to meet again even if there are serious disagreements on a host of issues. In these bleak times when Pak-Afghan relations have deteriorated, even the willingness to keep meeting in the hope of resolving disputes is something positive.
Though Afghan delegations of senior civil and military officials have undertaken visits recently to Pakistan, a trip by President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah is long overdue and would certainly make a difference. Since his appointment as President on September 29, 2014, Ghani has twice visited Pakistan, once barely two months after taking charge and then to attend the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad in December 2015.
The first visit was promising and generated huge expectations as Ghani had staked his political capital to come to Pakistan despite some domestic opposition. His first stop in Pakistan was the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, which raised eyebrows and overshadowed his subsequent meetings with the civil government functionaries. The GHQ meeting reflected recognition of the reality that the powerful military in Pakistan has a dominant role to play in context of Pak-Afghan relations.
The hopes attached to Ghani’s visit were dashed to the ground not long after. A spike in violence in Afghanistan and certain terrorist attacks in Pakistan traced to Afghanistan-based Pakistani militants damaged whatever understanding was developed through bilateral talks. In particular, the horrendous terrorist strike at the Army Public School in Peshawar shocked and angered the nation as 147 persons, including 122 schoolchildren, were killed and responsibility was claimed by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants led by Maulana Fazlullah and Khalifa Umar Mansoor based in Afghanistan.
By the time Ghani paid his second visit to Pakistan to co-host the Heart of Asia Conference aimed at promoting economic and security cooperation among Afghanistan and its neighbours, the relations had deteriorated to the extent that many felt repairing the relationship would require not only a major effort but also a change in the way Islamabad and Kabul perceived each other. This was despite the fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif broke protocol and received Ghani at the Islamabad airport in the company of the three services chiefs, including the then Army chief General Raheel Sharif, and a number of ministers. The gesture showed Islamabad’s desire to win the Afghan President’s trust and put the relations with Kabul back on track.
In May 2017, media reports said President Ghani had declined an invitation to visit Pakistan until the perpetrators of certain attacks in Afghanistan’s major cities, including Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, based in Pakistani safe havens were delivered to the Afghan government. Islamabad denied the existence of any such safe havens and also expressed concern over the use of Afghanistan’s soil by hostile intelligence agencies, including Indian, to destabilise Pakistan. Such was the animosity in the Afghan ruling circles towards Pakistan that reports in a section of the international media claimed Ghani was advised by politicians not to smile while meeting Pakistanis during his December 2015 trip to Islamabad to attend the Afghanistan-focused Heart of Asia Conference.
Dr Abdullah’s case is different as he hasn’t paid a visit to Pakistan for years. After losing the presidential election to Ghani and then becoming a stakeholder in the national unity government through the mediation of the then US Secretary of State John Kerry, he has been invited to visit Pakistan and he agreed to do so at an appropriate time. However, an appropriate time has been hard to find in the rocky relationship between the two estranged neighbours.
Abdullah, whose job is that of the de facto prime minister and holds 50 per cent share in the cabinet, was scheduled to visit Pakistan on May 2, 2016, but it was postponed following a devastating attack on a security office in Kabul on April 19 that killed 70 persons. Subsequently in August 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif extended an invitation to Abdullah to visit Pakistan through the country’s ambassador in Kabul, Abrar Hussain, but it couldn’t materialise. Abdullah has always been considered more hardline towards Pakistan, but lately it seems Ghani has taken an even harder line in his dealings with Islamabad.
Even if some of these high-level visits had taken place, it is doubtful these would have achieved the desired results in view of the deep mistrust between Islamabad and Kabul. General Bajwa’s statement in Kabul during the February 13-14 meeting of senior military leaders from Central and South Asian nations and the US highlighted the crux of the matter when he asked Afghanistan to reciprocate the anti-terror actions undertaken internally by Pakistan. His reference was to the sanctuaries in Afghanistan from where terrorist attacks against Pakistan are being directed. On his part, he assured the ‘Chiefs of Defence Conference’ convened by the US that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism operations are targetting all those elements that could carry out attacks in Afghanistan. He highlighted the absence of effective border security coordination and the presence of 2.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan as the weak links that need to be strengthened now that Islamabad had eliminated all terrorist sanctuaries from Pakistani territory.
It is obvious Kabul and Washington don’t share this view as they believe the Afghan Taliban group and its affiliate Haqqani network, continue to enjoy freedom of presence and movement in Pakistan and they need to be tackled aggressively and effectively. Until all sides are able to reach an agreement how best to tackle the terrorist threat facing all of them, there is little likelihood that Pak-Afghan ties would be mended. The first step is to make them friendlier.