New Afghan President Ashraf Ghani began a two-day official visit to neighboring Pakistan Friday amid optimism that his talks with leaders in Islamabad will lead to enhanced political, security and economic cooperation.
Ghani, visiting Pakistan for the first time since taking office in late September, was accompanied by a high-level delegation of cabinet ministers, Afghan army chiefs and business representatives.
After holding initial talks with senior officials in the Pakistani capital, Ghani and Afghan army chief General Sher Muhamad visited Pakistani military headquarters in the nearby city of Rawalpindi.
Ghani's visit to Pakistan's military headquarters is being described as a significant development in bilateral ties because many Afghans blame that institution for security problems facing Afghanistan.
Pakistani troops presented Ghani with a guard of honor. According to an official statement, Ghani paid tribute to Pakistani soldiers who died fighting terrorism by laying a floral wreath at the Shuhada Monument built in their honor.
The Afghan delegation also was given a detailed briefing on the Pakistani army’s efforts to secure border areas with Afghanistan.
Ghani praises anti-terror efforts
In talks with Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif, the Afghan leader expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts and assured his country’s "cooperation to jointly curb the menace of terrorism," army officials said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said Ghani’s visit would help advance consolidation and further expansion of bilateral relations in all areas, including security cooperation.
She reiterated that Pakistan is strictly adhering to a policy of non-interference in Afghan affairs. She said its counter-militancy operations near the border areas demonstrate the country’s resolve to fight terrorism.
“Peace and stability in Afghanistan are in Pakistan’s vital interest,” Aslam said. “Pakistan has consistently supported an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process” in Afghanistan.
A chance to improve ties
Officials in both countries view the Afghan leader’s visit as a fresh opportunity to improve bilateral relations that are historically marred by mutual suspicions and mistrust.
Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, often accused the Pakistan Army and its spy agency, the ISI, of supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan – a charge Islamabad denies. Pakistani officials also dismissed suggestions the country can influence the Taliban to join the Afghan political reconciliation process using its past ties to the Islamist movement.
A member of Afghanistan's national women's soccer team, Yalda Arghandiwal, said she saw her president’s visit to Pakistan as a strong message of unity and close friendship between their two countries.
“I think that it is one of the signs that we want to bring friendship into each other’s countries. We want to be friends with you guys,” she said. “… I think it is time to get rid of all the war and terrorism.”
Critics such as Afghan civil society activist Naeem Ayubzada are cautiously optimistic about the outcome of Ghani’s visit.
“We used to have commitments from Pakistan,” Ayubzada said, noting that Karzai and Afghanis had visited the country. “… There were commitments but they were not met properly, accordingly and sufficiently based on what they [Pakistanis] have committed with Afghanistan.”
U.S. officials are also describing the Ghani visit as “a remarkable opportunity” for Pakistan and Afghanistan to turn a new page in their relationship.
"It seems as if there is a tremendous desire on both parts that this relationship is put on a firmer footing, that it contributes to greater stability for the region,” Dan Feldman, U.S. special representative for the two countries, told VOA before Ghani’s trip to Islamabad. “That is I think is one of the best indicators that there can be future stability."
Ghani will hold in-depth talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Saturday. He’s also scheduled to watch a cricket match in Islamabad between the two countries before concluding his trip.