ISLAMABAD — While Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to disagree on many key issues, they reported progress in their bilateral relations in 2013. Close cooperation between the two neighbors is considered crucial for ending the Afghan war as NATO prepares to wind up its combat mission by the end of next year.
Pakistan’s alleged links to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan have been a major source of tension ever since the Islamist group was forced from power in Kabul in 2001.
Many Afghans say Islamabad supports some militant groups to retain influence in Afghanistan after foreign combat troops withdraw. Pakistani leaders have repeatedly dismissed the allegations.
“We must try both of us, to evaluate our relations to have some trust-building measures but some people must not think that Afghanistan is the backyard of Pakistan. They must recognize that Afghanistan is a sovereign state,” said Humayun Shah Asefi, a senior Afghan opposition politician.
Afghanistan is a sovereign state, but like Pakistan, the central government struggles to control parts of its territory. After years in which Afghan officials accused Pakistan of allowing militants safe haven to launch cross-border attacks, this year Pakistani officials made the reverse claim.
Speaking to a Pakistani TV station in June, President Hamid Karzai acknowledged that anti-Pakistan militants operate on Afghan territory, but insisted it is not his fault.
“Yes, they are there. Yes, they are there because of the war created against Afghanistan by the [army] establishment in Pakistan. This is the consequence of the activities from across the Durand Line in Pakistan towards Afghanistan,” said Karzai.
Since last year, Pakistan has fired thousands of artillery shells into Afghanistan to target militant bases nestled along their shared 2500 kilometer mountainous border, known as the Durand Line.
Pakistani Senator Afrasiab Khattak said although the lawless border areas are a problem, they are a symptom of the lack of trust between the two governments. “The real issue is not border management. The real issue is sourcing out borders to militants. Unfortunately, Pakistan has been doing it for a very long time and recently Afghans have also resorted to this tactic by giving shelter to our fugitives. I think we have to stop this,” he stated.
Despite tensions over the violent border areas, there are signs that relations are improving.
Since the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took charge in June, Afghan officials have welcomed Pakistan's willingness to free militants who could be helpful to the fledgling peace talks with the Taliban.
During Sharif’s recent trip to Afghanistan, he reiterated that peace in his country is closely linked to a stable Afghanistan. “We have stood by Afghanistan we will continue to standby Afghanistan and we have no favorites in Afghanistan," he noted. "Our favorite of course is the people of Afghanistan.”
Pakistani authorities fear that a chaotic situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces could strengthen homegrown militants, posing a greater challenge for Islamabad’s anti-terrorism efforts. Islamabad also worries that continuing conflict and instability could trigger a fresh influx of Afghan refugees, putting pressure on an already weak and fragile economy.
Former Pakistan army general, Athar Abbas, said that improved security cooperation between the two countries is critical need for stable future ties. “Unless and until the Afghan security establishment and the government, and our government as well as the security establishment are not on one page and sit down together to decide how to deal with the complete menace [of terrorism], the ultimate peace objective will remain elusive on both sides of the border,” he said.
Observers have for long argued that much of the mistrust and acrimony between Afghanistan and Pakistan flows from the rivalries between their security establishments. This mistrust also influences U.S. and Indian relations with Pakistan. With the departure of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan next year, and powerful militant groups that both Kabul and Islamabad are trying to neutralize, the stakes are high for both countries to find a way to work together.