Afghan and Pakistani leaders have made a push to improve their long-troubled relationship under Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and try to broker peace with the Afghan Taliban. But this week, an open dialogue in Islamabad exposed how their fragile alliance is being strained by the Taliban’s spring offensive.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made significant moves this year to try to improve relations with Islamabad, which cost him political support at home.
A deal for improving counterterrorism cooperation between spy agencies of the two countries led to close consultations with senior Pakistani army leaders but also angered Afghan lawmakers who distrust Islamabad.
In return, Afghan delegates claim that Ghani was promised that Pakistan would press the Taliban to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government instead of launching a spring offensive.
But Taliban attacks have increased as the weather has warmed, prompting speculation that Islamabad is not holding up its end of the bargain.
Davood Moradian is head of Afghanistan’s Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Therefor the message that the Afghan delegation convey in this round of negotiation is that the next three months are very critical and President Ghani needs to produce result to the Afghan people that his risk, his gamble is going to pay off. Of course no one in Afghanistan expect a sudden change but what is important is that a meaningful peace process and a meaningful reduction of the violence has to be concretized,” said Moradian.
Distrust still exists
Lawmakers and analysts from Afghanistan and Pakistan gathered in Islamabad this week to exchange views and proposals for shoring up commitments to improve peace and stability on both sides of the border.
But the event also showed the distrust that still exists in the relationship, with Afghan participants openly accusing Islamabad of continuing to allow top Taliban leaders to take refuge in Pakistani cities.
Analyst Moradian expressed the widespread belief among Afghans that the Taliban remain under the influence of the Pakistan military.
“We know that even if Pakistan decides to exercise that role, the Taliban would not disappear overnight but it will send a symbolic message to us in Kabul that Pakistan is serious. So, for us the leadership of the Taliban, that as long as they enjoy the hospitality of your establishment, I don’t think any other measures will win the trust of the Afghan people,” said Moradian.
While at the conference, the Pakistani prime minister’s adviser on foreign policy and national security Sartaj Aziz called the Taliban’s spring offensive a “disturbing development” that has nothing to do with Pakistan. But he said it is unrealistic to expect the group would suddenly give up fighting the first summer after the withdrawal of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
He said the current friendly phase of good ties between Islamabad and Kabul is not being given enough time to change the situation on the ground.
Simbal Khan is an adviser with Pakistan’s Planning Commission who acknowledged that although some Taliban leaders may reside in Pakistan, authorities here do not have great influence over them and Islamabad remains committed to policies promoting peace and stability on both sides of their shared border.
“Yes, there is leadership in Pakistan. It has been there but as far as the commanders on the ground carry out the operations they have been doing that from Afghanistan. To assume that the Taliban are going to align policies exactly to what Pakistan is promising I think that’s quite fallacious at this point,” she said.
Khan asserted that since the withdrawal of most NATO-led foreign forces, Taliban fighters have moved back to Afghanistan and their commanders on the ground are operating independently.
Khan pointed to recent unofficial successive meetings Taliban officials held with Afghan politicians, civil society members and even female lawmakers in Qatar, Norway and in Dubai. She said unlike the past practice, the Islamist insurgency has confirmed all these but Khan would not say whether Pakistan played a role in facilitating these informal talks.
“I think what we were promising very clearly and I think what we are trying to work very clearly was to speed up the reconciliation. We have been trying to do that, it has not really snow balled into the process that we wanted to actually happen but the effort is on,” said Khan.
Afghan delegates have welcomed the Taliban talks, although they remain skeptical about their outcome. However, female Afghan lawmaker Nahid Farid said the talks, which have included women participants, are an important milestone for a country where many worry about the future of women’s rights.
“Right now women are sitting with Taliban, it means Taliban are accepting women and they count women as a dynamic and as a part of the solution. This is very important for us,” said Farid.
She said Afghan women will continue to support the peace process as long as they protect the basic rights they have been guaranteed in the constitution, as well as their access to justice and education.