The bonhomie surrounding President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad earlier this month, the promising statements issued by the two sides, and the agreements reached on the occasion have generated hopes that we may be witnessing the dawn of a new era marked by Pakistan-Afghanistan friendship and an Afghanistan at peace within and with its neighbours. It was encouraging from Pakistan’s point of view that President Ashraf Ghani undertook the visit to Islamabad before visiting India. The visit took place in the wake of COAS General Raheel Sharif’s visit to Kabul on 6 November in which he conveyed Pakistan’s offer to train Afghan security forces and provide weapons for equipping an Afghan infantry brigade. What, however, remains to be seen is whether the agreements and understandings reached during the visit would be followed by practical steps by both sides to turn them into reality.
This will not be easy because of the history of past mistrust and differences between the two sides. Pakistan extended support to the Afghan Taliban in the 1990’s as against the Northern alliance. Only the American ultimatum in the aftermath of 9/11 forced Islamabad to bring about a U-turn in its position and provide logistical support to Washington in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul. Even subsequently, Washington and the government of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai kept accusing Pakistan of providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network, on its soil. On the other hand, Islamabad has had its own set of complaints against Kabul of allowing India to use its territory for covert activities to destabilize Pakistan, particularly Balochistan, and providing refuge to fugitives like Fazlullah and Baloch separatists on its territory.
It was encouraging, therefore, that both sides expressed their willingness to bury the past and turn a new chapter in their relations during President Ashraf Ghani’s meetings with President Mamnoon Hussain, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif. Our Foreign Office noted in a statement issued on 15 November after the meetings that, “Pakistan and Afghanistan reaffirmed their resolve at the highest level to transform bilateral ties and build a relationship marked by close cooperation on the political and security planes and a strong economic foundation.” Pakistan reaffirmed that a peaceful, stable, united and prosperous Afghanistan was in its vital national interest. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s support to the intra-Afghan reconciliation process that the government of President Ashraf Ghani was initiating. The two leaders agreed that this process must be fully Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
More specifically, the two sides expressed their resolve to jointly fight terrorism. The Afghan President agreed to cooperation in border management and to the training of his country’s security forces in Pakistan in response to the offer made by Pakistan. Interestingly, such offers had not been accepted in the past by the government of former President Hamid Karzai. On the economic side, the two sides reaffirmed their agreement to raise the level of bilateral trade to $5 billion in the next three years. They also agreed to strengthen connectivity and regional cooperation through such projects as CASA-1000 and TAPI gas pipeline.
There is no doubt that the new Afghan President, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, is making special efforts to put Pakistan-Afghanistan relations back on track. His visit to Pakistan, which was preceded by his government’s decision not to seek military supplies from India in the reversal of an earlier decision to order such supplies, should be seen in this light. The contours of the deal struck between Pakistan and Afghanistan during President Ashraf Ghani’s visit are becoming quite clear by now. Pakistan would take strong military action against the remnants of the Afghan Taliban in its tribal areas without any exception. As General Raheel Sharif emphasized during his recent visit to the US, Operation Zarb-e-Azb was being carried out without any discrimination “whether it is the Haqqani network or TTP or any other group.” This policy statement reflects a dramatic shift in Pakistan’s past position under which it avoided taking military action against the Haqqani network on national security grounds. This must have been music to American ears.
General Raheel Sharif foresaw close counter-terrorism cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the months ahead in his statement in Washington. Pakistan would also help Ashraf Ghani in reaching a deal with the Taliban in the interests of national reconciliation and a political settlement. In return, Pakistan would expect Afghanistan to be sensitive to Pakistan’s legitimate concerns and interests. Hopefully, this would include steps to prevent Afghan soil from being used for terrorist attacks in Pakistan whether by the agents of the Indian intelligence agencies, TTP fugitives or others. Pakistan would also expect Indian presence in Afghanistan, especially in the regions bordering Pakistan, to be scaled down to a reasonable level.
Pakistan’s assurances to the Afghan President and the US administration regarding indiscriminate military action against the Taliban would also be welcomed by China which has its own set of complaints because of the reported links of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) with them. It is worth recalling that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his recent visit to China assured President Xi Jinping that Pakistan would continue to fight resolutely the ETIM “terrorist forces.” Even Iran, which has its own interests in Afghanistan, would welcome Pakistan’s strong and indiscriminate military action against the Taliban. Thus, the shift in Pakistan’s policy would have a salutary effect on Pakistan’s relations with both global and regional powers. However, if the Operation Zarb-e-Azb continues too long, there may be some negative repercussions. At some stage, perhaps after the TTP has been sufficiently softened through Zarb-e-Azb, the government may have to engage it once again in dialogue for overcoming the menace of domestic terrorism.
The situation in Afghanistan would witness a major change in the post 2014 scenario with the departure of most of the ISAF troops whose number will be reduced to 12,800 including 9800 American troops and 3000 soldiers from Germany, Italy and other NATO member states. Previously, it was understood that the combat function of these soldiers would come to an end on 31 December, 2014 and thereafter they would restrict themselves to supporting Afghan forces in their combat against the Afghan Taliban besides undertaking counter-terrorism operations against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. But a recent order issued by President Obama has expanded the role of US forces in Afghanistan after 2014. According to this order, US troops would also be authorized to join Afghan troops in combat missions against the Taliban and other militants if they posed a direct threat to the US and coalition forces, and air strikes could be carried out in their support.
This development would have the effect of strengthening the Afghan government and may indirectly encourage the Afghan Taliban to enter into talks with it for national reconciliation and durable peace in Afghanistan after 2014. We may thus be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But peace in Afghanistan is far from guaranteed. The Taliban may continue to fight in which case we may witness the resumption of a full-fledged civil war in Afghanistan. If this comes to pass, Pakistan must refrain from interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs while supporting all Afghan-led moves for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan in close coordination with other regional countries, particularly Iran.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.