December Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

The “enormous steps taken during the last three days” helped overcome the obstacles to the ties between the two countries over the past 13 years, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai told the press in Islamabad, as he stood alongside Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his visit to Pakistan.

The Afghan president and members of his entourage were satisfied with the renewed commitment and all-out support offered by Pakistan’s political and military leadership to tackle the long-standing insurgency in Afghanistan, a senior member of the delegation confided.

In a departure from protocol, President Ghani visited General Headquarters (GHQ) Rawalpindi and met with the military leadership to understand their perspective on the security situation along the Pak-Afghan border and the Taliban insurgency. Peace and security top Ghani’s agenda. He is probably the first Afghan head of state to have been accorded such a warm welcome at GHQ.

All this was unusual for both the Afghan president and the Pakistan military leadership. Observers say that the optics at the general headquarters gave immense hope to the people, and the visit could be a game-changing event if the leaders of both countries continue thinking out of the box and move beyond the stereotypical engagements and rhetoric. Observers believe that Dr Ghani is convinced of the new thinking in Pakistan’s security apparatus, particularly that of the Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif.

Earlier, the visits of Sartaj Aziz and General Raheel Sharif to Kabul soon after the formation of the unity government generated a lot of hope among Afghans who felt that Pakistan’s military and political leadership was serious in cooperating with the new administration in Kabul. This development appears to have boosted the Afghans’ confidence in the capabilities of Dr Ghani, whose inauguration as president marked the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history. For the first time, people in Kabul witnessed a new leader marching into ‘Arg’ — the Afghan Presidential Palace — without bloodshed, coup d’état or the intervention of super powers. Rather, all this was made possible by the millions of Afghans who turned out to vote in April and June.

Dr Ghani has assumed power at a time when Afghanistan is faced with pressing issues such as the deteriorating security situation, widespread corruption, a poor economy and resurging ethnic tensions.

However, the elephant in the room for the new administration is the Taliban insurgency, which is stalling the country’s progress in political and economic spheres. Making peace overtures to what he called “political opponents,” Dr Ghani said in his inaugural speech: “We ask opponents of the government, especially the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami [Gulbuddin Hikmatyar], to enter political talks. They should tell us about whatever problems they have. We will find a solution. We ask every villager to call for peace. We ask Muslim scholars to advise the Taliban, and if they don’t listen to their advice, they should cut off all relations [with them].”

During Afghanistan’s long election campaign, Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah — Ghani’s election rival and now a partner in the unity government — promised a peaceful Afghanistan. Both the leaders, mindful of Pakistan’s crucial role in bringing peace to Afghanistan, avoided blaming Islamabad for the deteriorating security situation during their campaigns.

“Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah could have exploited anti-Pakistan sentiment during their respective election campaigns if they so wished. But they did not, as both wanted good relations with Pakistan once in power,” says Senator Afrasiyab Khattak.

Just days after the Afghan President’s visit to Pakistan, a deadly suicide blast killed almost 60 people during a volleyball match in eastern Paktika province. Unlike the past — when Afghan Intelligence persisted in putting the blame of every mishap at Pakistan’s doorstep — this time around  the National Directorate of Security (NDS) accused the Haqqani network for the deadly attack and avoided any reference to Pakistan

In a formal interaction with journalists in Pakistan, Dr Ghani — who was then chairman of the Afghan Transition Commission,  a body responsible for the transfer of security affairs from international forces to the Afghan national army — said, “We will offer every hand to Pakistan. If Pakistan does not cooperate, then we will seek other options. We can’t wait; we have to move ahead.”

He expressed similar sentiments when speaking to Afghan journalists on board a flight from Kabul to Islamabad. “Mine is not an exhibition visit [to Islamabad],” he said. “I want substance, not rhetoric.”

Prior to visiting Pakistan, the Afghan president told Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the prime minister on foreign affairs, “We should not just talk about peace. It’s time we put words into action.”

The positive aspect of the new Afghan leadership is its understanding that without first addressing Pakistani concerns, Kabul cannot move ahead on a peace agenda or turn Afghanistan into a “transit hub” between Central and South Asia, which is what Ghani dreams of achieving.

Having been in office for just a month, the Afghan president proved his seriousness in addressing these concerns before making any demands on Islamabad. The issue of the cross-country power transmission line — CASA 1000 between Pakistan and Tajikistan via Afghanistan — has lingered on for years due to disagreements over prices and transit fees between Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Dr Ghani wasted no time and went ahead and signed the agreement on a much lower transit fee to satisfy Pakistan,” says Ambassador Ayaz Wazir — who served as Pakistan Council General in Mazar Sharif during the hay days of the Taliban.

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Aware of the Pakistan army’s sensitivity to the increasing role of India in Afghanistan, Dr Ghani sent a clear message to India that the Afghans did not need New Delhi’s cooperation, particularly on security issues, and politely refused to accept arms from the Indian government for the Afghan military. “This decision has had a tremendous impact on the thinking of the military leadership,” Wazir adds.

The Afghans, a military official confided, also responded positively to Gen Raheel’s renewed offer of training Afghan military officials. “Pakistan offered to raise a complete brigade of Afghan military and the Afghans agreed in principle,” says the military officer.

On his recent trip to Kabul, General Raheel Sharif had asked the Afghan leaders to draw a line between the past and present. “The general told the Afghan leadership that he was in Kabul not to dwell on the old blame games, but to ‘draw a clear line’ between the present and the past,” said an Afghan official.

Insiders also point to the role played by the Chinese government in convincing Pakistan to work closely with the new Afghan leadership for the elimination of extremism and militancy.

Ghafoor Javed, a senior Kabul-based political observer, attributes the changes in the region as being a major contributor to the new thinking in Pakistan’s approach toward Afghanistan. “The Chinese are feeling more threatened by the increasing militancy and extremism,” he said. They will certainly pressurise Pakistan to cooperate with Afghanistan, and have also shown interest in facilitating the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.

Before his trip to Pakistan, the Afghan president visited Saudi Arabia and China — both close and trusted allies of Pakistan — and persuaded the Chinese to fill the political vacuum once the Americans and international forces withdrew from the troubled region.

“This is a master stroke by Dr Ghani, who convinced China to play a role in the Afghan peace process,” says Brigadier (retd) Ishaq Ahmad, who served as senior intelligence officer in Kabul. “This will keep the Indians and Americans away from the main table, to the satisfaction of Pakistan.”

Addressing the SAARC meeting in Kathmandu, Dr Ghani reiterated his earlier views when he said that Kabul would no longer allow any of its South Asian neighbours to use Afghan soil to conduct their proxy wars against each other.

The new Afghan administration addressed almost all of Pakistan’s concerns prior to Dr Ghani’s arrival in Islamabad. “There is no reason now for Pakistan not to cooperate with the Kabul government,” adds Brig. Ishaq.

For Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah, failure is not an option in the emerging scenario,  when US and international forces will be reduced to a minimum, with a limited role in  training and advising Afghan forces.

Moreover, Afghanistan’s neighbours, particularly China and the Central Asian states, also fear that failure of the Afghan government and success of the Taliban insurgents will seriously undermine their peace and security efforts.

Pakistan is now ideally placed to play a lead role by joining the ongoing regional efforts spearheaded by Dr Ghani, to resolve this decade-old problem. The Afghans expect Pakistan to stop supporting Taliban insurgents and support Kabul’s efforts to negotiate and find a political solution to the Afghan imbroglio.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue