ISLAMABAD - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has begun a two-day official visit to Pakistan to pursue what aides say would be the normalization of the relationship between the two uneasy neighboring countries.
The Afghan leader held delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan shortly after arriving in Islamabad as the head of a large delegation comprising cabinet ministers, advisors and Afghan business community leaders.
Khan’s office said in a post-meeting statement the two leaders "agreed to open a new chapter of friendship and cooperation ...based on mutual trust and harmony for the benefit of the two peoples and countries and for advancing the cause of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”
The discussions between the two delegations focused on strengthening mutual cooperation in a number of areas, including political, trade, economy, security, as well as peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan, the statement noted.
Ghani, who is undertaking his third visit to Islamabad after taking office in 2014, is also scheduled to address a conference of Pakistani and Afghan businessmen.
Allegations that the Pakistani military supports and shelters Taliban leaders are at the center of long-running bilateral tensions and mistrust. Pakistan rejects the charges and in turn accuses the Afghan spy agency of providing refuge to militants waging terrorist attacks against the Pakistani state.
The two countries share a nearly 2,600 kilometer, largely porous border, which critics say encourages illegal movement in both directions. Pakistan is unilaterally installing a robust fence along most of the frontier and believes it would address mutual security concerns.
Officials in Islamabad see Ghani’s latest visit as an indication his government “now realizes and accepts the centrality of Pakistan” to resolve bilateral issues and promote the Afghan peace process.
A senior foreign ministry official underscored the need for regular, direct and uninterrupted institutional-level engagement between the two countries. The official spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.
“While Afghanistan realizes the importance of Pakistan in medium to long term, Pakistan also feels that it is important to remain engaged with the government of Afghanistan regardless of who heads it,” stressed the Pakistani official.
Last week, Pakistan hosted a "peace conference" of around 60 top Afghan political personalities, mostly opposition leaders, to try to underscore its neutrality in the conflict-torn Afghanistan.
U.S.-Taliban peace talks
Ghani’s visit comes at a time of intensified diplomatic efforts the United States is making to find a political settlement with the Taliban insurgency to end the nearly 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.
It also comes ahead of the next round of peace negotiations between U.S. and insurgent delegations to be hosted by Qatar on Saturday.
The Afghan government has been excluded from the dialogue process because of the Taliban’s refusal to deal with what the insurgents dismiss as an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.
Islamabad takes credit for arranging the U.S.-Taliban peace dialogue, insisting peace in Afghanistan is key to Pakistan’s own long-term security.
U.S. officials acknowledge Pakistani efforts in promoting the Afghan peace but they are seeking more help from Islamabad in terms of persuading the Taliban to show flexibility in the talks.
“Pakistan has a particularly important role to play in this process…Progress has been made. We will continue to look to Pakistan for practical measures, cooperation on peace talks and the implementation of any agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Kabul.
Taliban and U.S. officials have held six rounds of talks in the nearly year-long process. The two sides say they have drafted a primary agreement that would bind the Taliban to stop terrorists from using insurgent-control areas for international terrorism. In turn, Washington would announce a troop withdrawal timetable.
But the Taliban rejects calls for a permanent cease-fire and the start of a formal intra-Afghan peace dialogue until it secures a U.S. troop withdrawal deal.