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Optimism Ahead of Afghan Leader’s Visit to Islamabad

FILE - Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with the media after Eid al-Adha prayers at the presidential palace in Kabul.
FILE - Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with the media after Eid al-Adha prayers at the presidential palace in Kabul.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visits Islamabad later this week. Pakistani officials say they hope the country’s recent successes in army operations against militants linked to the Afghan insurgency and adherence to a policy of non-interference in Afghanistan have set the stage for resetting their often troubled relations.

Pakistan’s national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz, in an interview with VOA said his country has taken significant steps in the last year to demonstrate its neutrality and promote Afghan peace and reconciliation efforts.

He believes his recent meeting with President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, and a visit by the Pakistani army chief to the Afghan capital, have paved the way for productive discussions when Ghani visits Islamabad this week.

“[President Ghani] himself used the word ‘a new beginning’ and a relationship that is based on trust and does not involve blame game and which is multidimensional. The basis will be economic cooperation, trade and investment, at the same time security cooperation and much better people-to-people contacts. So, it is a multidimensional agenda on the basis of which we hope to build this new relationship,” said Aziz.

Aziz reiterated that the Afghan Taliban is a “stakeholder” in the political process but said their attempts to regain power in Kabul through violent means are detrimental to Pakistan’s national security interests.

The presence of the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani Network of Afghan insurgents in North Waziristan border territory has long strained Islamabad’s ties with Kabul and the United States.

But Aziz believes the ongoing army offensives in the Waziristan region has disrupted those safe havens.

“The fact that they do not have sanctuaries anymore and no infrastructures from which they can operate, creates a much more favorable environment to implement this policy of not using each other’s territory against the other,” said Aziz.

Top American military commanders in Afghanistan have also acknowledged the Waziristan operation has “fractured” and “disrupted” the Haqqani Network’s ability to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Aziz believes the new Afghan leadership with its strong election mandate is better placed to further the peace process and Pakistan is ready to play a role in assisting those efforts. But he dismissed suggestions Islamabad can influence the Taliban to come to the table.

“Well, obviously we don’t control them - we have some contacts but basically Afghanistan has to decide how to proceed with this... We can advise, we can facilitate, but obviously we cannot make the decision on how to proceed with the dialogue and how to carry forward the reconciliation process, which is Afghan-led and Afghan owned,” said Aziz.

Aziz said that a recent international conference China hosted on Afghanistan also sent a strong message to the Taliban to cease hostilities and join political reconciliation efforts.

“Everybody wanted peace in Afghanistan, nobody wanted the civil war to continue because people of Afghanistan have suffered for so long from infighting and civil war and now the time has come for them to have peace and stability. So, this message is very loud and clear, and I think it will also open the ground for much larger assistance to Afghanistan for development and progress,” Aziz said.

Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network hopes Pakistan’s counter-militancy actions and President Ghani’s visit will lead to reduced tensions in bilateral ties.

“I think the change of head of state [in Afghanistan] is a new chance to improve relations and both countries will not be able to live without each other. If Afghans, including the government, see that Pakistan really changes its attitude also to protecting some of the networks within the Taliban, if they see a change there, then they would be happy to react positively too,” said Ruttig.

President Ghani has recently stated he is traveling to Pakistan to discuss "short term, medium term and long term" steps for promoting peace in Afghanistan and the visit will help him determine the level of cooperation the neighboring country is willing to extend to Kabul.