A man in Kabul inspects an election poster of now-President Ashraf Ghani before last year's run-off. An escalation of violence has since dampened public support of the new government..
President Ashraf Ghani has demanded tough actions against Taliban leadership from Pakistan in a recent confidential letter sent to civilian and military leaders in Islamabad. While such actions are long overdue, the timing of the letter raises questions about whether the president has, in fact, changed his recently softened policy towards Islamabad in the face of growing Taliban onslaughts. Or is the move aimed at quieting the recent barrage of criticism over his generous concessions to Pakistan?
In a three-page letter leaked to Afghan media, a copy of which was seen by Afghanistan Today, the president asked Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government to deny the Afghan Taliban sanctuary on its soil and put the leadership of the Quetta and Peshawar Taliban councils under house arrest. It has also asked Islamabad to detain Haqqani network members “responsible for recent terror campaign in Afghanistan,” and demanded that hospitals inside Pakistan hand over wounded Taliban warriors to the security forces.
The tone of the strong-worded letter is anomalous to Ghani’s recent rapprochement with Pakistan. Since taking office in September, President Ghani committed to mending previously strained relations with its neighbour and ending the “undeclared state of hostility” between the two countries. Ghani’s unprecedented overtures aimed to win Islamabad’s assistance in brokering peace talks with the Taliban.
The letter warns that if Pakistan fails to show its commitment to peace in Afghanistan, “the window of opportunity will be closed.”
“Regardless of his firm commitment to peace, President Ghani has no choice but to become a war president to ensure the survival of his country and the safety of Afghan women and children,” the letter reads.
Pakistan has already reciprocated Ghani’s overtures by reportedly warning the Taliban leadership to end their ongoing spring offensive or face stern consequences. The Government of Pakistan also recently helped organize a meeting between an Afghan peace envoy and Taliban representatives in Urumqi, China.
Addressing domestic grievances
Ghani's letter was sent just days after the Afghan and Pakistan spy agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to bolster cooperation in areas of intelligence sharing and their joint fight against terrorism. Following the accord, President Ghani came under severe criticism by both political opponents and some of his supporters for selling the country to Pakistan. Former President Hamid Karzai, former chiefs of intelligence, members of parliament and ordinary Afghans denounced the agreement.
Additionally, the Taliban have continued their offensive in Kunduz, Helmand, and Uruzgan provinces, while conducting several high-profile attacks in Kabul. Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan, with no dividend in return, have prompted many Afghans, already frustrated by the lack of improvement in security, to question their government.
Did Ghani send the letter because his patience with Pakistan’s inability to take any actionable steps against the Taliban is wearing thin, or because he needed to quiet widespread public criticism at home? The letter, which was intentionally leaked to media by the Afghan government, may have also been a way to increase pressure on Islamabad.
While it would be naive to think he could get Pakistan to act on some of the demands, including the detention of Taliban and Haqqani network’s leaders, the letter calls for some of the actions that Islamabad has already committed, such as denouncing the Taliban’s spring offensive. During his recent trip to Kabul, Sharif condemned attacks by the “Afghan Taliban” and said their continuation would be “construed as terrorist acts.”
Islamabad may not bow to the recent demands of Ghani. Pakistani officials have publically admitted in the past that by supporting the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan was countering the growing influence of India, its historical archrival, in Afghanistan. Hence, while India remains Kabul’s steadfast supporter, expecting a sudden major policy shift by Islamabad towards Kabul would be delusional.
Ghani’s harder stance towards Pakistan resembles former President Karzai’s attempts to win Islamabad’s support in peace efforts. During his first years in office, Karzai courted Pakistan’s leaders to end their support of the Taliban and at one point called Pakistan a “twin brother” of Afghanistan. In a bid to improve relations between the two neighbors, Karzai told Pakistan’s Geo TV in 2011 that his country would back Pakistan in case of a military conflict between Pakistan and the United States. After becoming disappointed with Islamabad, Karzai attempted to confront Pakistani civilian and military leadership by publicly accusing Pakistan of orchestrating attacks in his country. He even provided them with a list of Taliban leaders’ addresses in Quetta city and their Pakistani phone number and urged the Pakistani officials to arrest them. The anti-Pakistani rhetoric included a stark warning by the former president that he would send Afghan troops deep inside Pakistan to target Taliban leaders, but those efforts only increased the antagonism between the two neighbors.
Ghani’s harsher stance in the letter, unless intended to quiet domestic criticism already communicated to Pakistani officials through private channels, would undoubtedly undo the recent thaw in relations between Kabul and Islamabad. It would also complicate ongoing efforts to kick-start peace negotiation with Taliban.
Afghanistan and Pakistan need to grasp the current chance to improve relations. Afghan civilians and pro-government fighters perish each day, making the immediate cessation of hostilities a paramount priority for the nation. But after decades of mutual distrust, expecting any quick result from the recently warmed relations would be shortsighted and counterproductive.