ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, together with his military chief and other top government officials, arrived in Kabul on Tuesday for talks with Afghan leaders.
The visit takes place as concerns grow that the spike in Taliban-led violence in Afghanistan threatens a recent thaw in the traditionally troubled relationship.
It is Sharif’s first visit to Afghanistan since President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government assumed charge in Kabul.
Sharif’s delegation is holding separate meetings with both President Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Khalilullah Qazi said Pakistan enjoys “very close, cordial and brotherly” relations with Afghanistan.
“High-level exchanges between the two countries are frequent and the objective of these visits is to promote relations between the two countries, promote better understanding and see where both the countries can cooperate further,” said Qazi.
Sharif’s visit takes place at a time of increased criticism in Kabul of President Ghani’s policy toward ending the Afghan conflict and placing too much trust in Pakistan for achieving that objective.
The criticism stems from the increase in Taliban attacks across Afghanistan as part of the insurgent group’s annual spring offensive. There had been hopes among Afghan political circles that peace talks with the Taliban through Pakistan’s mediation would help dampen the spring offensive this year.
Pakistan says ‘doing all it can’
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Qazi dismissed criticism that Pakistan is not doing enough to help the Afghan peace process.
“Pakistan is doing all it can to promote [the] peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan that is Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, and we will continue with this policy,” said Qazi.
Afghan officials worry that if the level of violence worsens in this fighting season, it could halt Ghani’s efforts to repair relations with Pakistan. Critics say they fear it could also revive the spate of mutual allegations after months of relative calm.
In Kabul Sunday, Ghani suggested he needed Pakistan to do more, even though he underscored that “some patience” is required about the prospects of promoting peace with the Taliban.
“We are not the battle ground for any proxy wars. We will not allow our territory to be used to destabilize any one of our neighbors or any one of our partners, or any people anywhere in the world. In return, [we] expect the same reciprocity,” said Ghani.
But some political analysts point to differences President Ghani has with Chief Executive Abdullah, who at times appears less keen than Ghani regarding unconditional talks with the Taliban.
Professor Anatol Lieven, a senior fellow at Washington’s New America Foundation, said much depends on whether the Afghan unity government is capable of talks with the Taliban.
“Because it is so internally divided and there are so many people, of course especially on Abdullah’s side, who are opposed to talks with the Taliban. So, I am afraid one would probably see a long period of uncertainty and division before there is a possibility of a new political departure,” said Lieven.
Pakistani military and civilian leaders insist they have thrown all support behind Ghani’s efforts to bring peace to his war-ravaged country. Officials say security forces have uprooted insurgent bases on the Pakistani side of the border.
And late last month, for the first time, Pakistan publicly denounced this year’s Taliban spring offensive and urged the Taliban to cease hostilities and engage in peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
Politicial analysts and government officials in Pakistan, however, caution that while Islamabad has some influence with the Afghan Taliban, it has no control over the Islamist insurgency. They describe as “unrealistic” Afghan expectations that Pakistan holds the key to ending the violence in Afghanistan.