For decades, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been marred by mutual mistrust and suspicion. But with a new administration in place in Kabul and new outreach by Pakistan’s military chief, there are signs of major changes for the long-wary neighbors.
Last November, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Pakistan, his first stop was the headquarters of the country’s powerful military, an institution Afghans blamed for the troubles facing their country.
Since that initial outreach, Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif has undertaken several trips to Kabul along with Pakistan's intelligence chief and other commanders, to deepen relations with their Afghan counterparts.
That top officials are regularly meeting is unprecedented after years in which each country blamed the other for violent attacks on its soil. But the new cooperation goes beyond these top-level visits.
Pakistani authorities say there is now better military and intelligence cooperation, with Afghanistan launching counterterrorism actions against fugitive Pakistani militants on its soil. Afghan officials also have acknowledged Pakistani counterterrorism measures are improving security along their border.
Recently, a small group of Afghan army cadets for the first time joined Pakistan’s prestigious military academy in Abbottabad.
In Pakistan, civilian and military leaders appear to be focused on convincing local and foreign critics that Islamabad is abandoning its past interventionist policy in Afghanistan.
Army spokesman Major-General Asim Bajwa told VOA that the officials are focused on the deep ties that have long bound the nations together, despite their history of animosity.
“If you see the overall context, Pakistanis and Afghans are brothers. There has been a bad patch [in relations], no doubt about this, but then I think we are restoring our relationship to normalcy and there are [Afghan] cadets who are coming to Pakistan [for military training]. You go and meet a common Afghan on the streets [of Afghanistan], he must have been in Pakistan. So, it is like homecoming for all Afghans and we really cherish to visit Kabul,” said Bajwa.
Former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Mohammad Sadiq is the secretary of Pakistan’s recently established National Security Division. During a seminar in Islamabad, he tried to explain the reasons behind the unexpected thaw in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.
“President Karzai was very suspicious of Pakistan and we were very suspicious of President Karzai at the same time. So, there were a lot of agreements but they were never implemented. Luckily, Ashraf Ghani was practically present in all those meetings [that took place under Karzai’s leadership] as minister first and then as advisor to President Karzai. Now the implementation of those agreements is happening after the unity government, and because of that new venues of cooperation are opening,” said Sadiq.
Sadiq said the two countries’ military and security agencies are the parts of the government that have harbored the deepest mistrust. But there are efforts on both sides to address the issue and move forward.
“The complaints are against sections of the government. For example, we have complaints about Afghan intelligence we have complaint about Afghan border police, Pakistan has complaints about their ministry for frontier and tribal affairs, roughly these three [Afghan institutions]. The Afghan government has complaint against Pakistan army and against ISI, so two departments of the government. Our position from the beginning was we have to bring these two together, let them sit together and sort it out and find solutions. That is happening now,” he said.
Afghan leaders also have acknowledged the time has come for joint efforts to neutralize the threat of extremism and terrorism.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, said his country has initiated “the hard but necessary work” to build trust, confidence and cooperation with Pakistan with a clear focus on promoting regional peace and security.
He also emphasized the need for media and Islamic scholars in both countries to work against religious extremists on both sides.
“If this is a common fight, which we have absolutely no doubt it is, the fight against terrorism and extremism and for peace and security then we must also forge that necessary common narrative to ensure its success. I believe we need to call out those individuals whoever they might be in both countries who are calling for jihad in either of our two countries or who refer to the violence, the terrorism that is occurring in both countries as jihad,” said Mosazai.
The close cooperation between the security establishments of the two countries has raised hopes for opening peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
It is widely believed that key leaders of the insurgent group are sheltering in Pakistan and Kabul believes Pakistan’s spy agency can coerce the Taliban to the negotiating table.
However, there are also signs that China could play an influential role as a peace broker, because of Beijing’s traditional strong ties to Pakistan and the goodwill it enjoys among Afghans, said author Ahmed Rashid.
“China has the respect of all the major stakeholders, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. It also has the respect of the Taliban. So, we have a country now that for the first time is going to be playing an international mediating role outside its border. So, China is taking a first step into the international arena of mediation over Afghanistan,” said Rashid.
Some observers say Chinese officials also are pushing Pakistan to ease tensions with neighboring India. China has long sought investment opportunities in the region, motivating Beijing to push for peace in Afghanistan for regional stability and commerce.