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Af-Pak relations back at square one

Farhad Peikar
After the last spate of deadly terrorist attacks, Kabul’s demands for Islamabad to either produce Taliban leaders for peace talks or crack down on their safe havens may fall on deaf ears in Pakistan.
13.08.2015  |  New York
The Pakistan Army has built trenches along a 400-kilometer stretch of the Durand Line. (photo: Wisal Yousafzai)
The Pakistan Army has built trenches along a 400-kilometer stretch of the Durand Line. (photo: Wisal Yousafzai)

The recent harsh comments by Afghan leadership blaming Pakistan for remaining a safe haven for the Taliban, who carry out attacks inside Afghanistan, has apparently damaged the ostensibly improved relationship between the two neighbors. An Afghan delegate is expected to arrive in Islamabad Aug. 13, bringing a stern message from Kabul to Pakistani officials: Treat the Taliban as a terrorist group, or run the risk of straining ties with Afghanistan. With disarray among Taliban leadership weakening the group's military power, Pakistan seems to bating for time, even at the cost of alienating Kabul.

Since taking office last September, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani courted Pakistan and made unprecedented concessions, including the signing of a controversial intelligence sharing accord. Pakistan reciprocated Ghani’s overtures, at least by paying lip service and calling on Taliban to stop their offensive. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced in Kabul that the continuation of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan would be “construed as terrorist acts.” Additionally, Pakistan facilitated two rounds of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban officials, including one near its capital city.

However, all hopes that the recently improved relations between the two countries could bring about a peace deal with Taliban shattered Aug. 10 after Afghan leaders questioned Pakistan’s sincerity. President Ghani said that Pakistan still remained a Taliban breeding ground from where “mercenaries send us messages of war.” Ghani’s partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, also blamed Pakistan for allowing the Afghan Taliban to openly operate on its soil.

 The harsh comments by Afghan leaders came after a series of devastating attacks in Kabul, which left at least 55 people dead and more than 400 others injured. President Ghani said that if Pakistan could not bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, it could at least close down their political offices in its major cities and destroy their training camps.

 “I ask the government and people of Pakistan to imagine that a terrorist attack just like the one in Kabul’s Shah Shahid area took place in Islamabad and the groups behind it had sanctuaries in Afghanistan and ran offices and training centers in our big cities. What would have been your reaction? Will you have looked at us as friends or enemies?” Ghani questioned at a recent press conference.

 Ghani and Abdullah called the Kabul bombings a “turning point” for Afghanistan. However, while the unity administration is under severe internal pressure to stop such attacks, there is more to the Afghan government’s insistence that Islamabad should take urgent action.

Opportunity after Mullah Omar’s death

After 14 years of war, the Taliban finally agreed to meet with Afghan government officials in what was termed as 'the first official peace talks' in the town of Murree, a hill resort on the outskirts of Islamabad, on July 7. During the negotiations, hosted by Pakistani government, the sides decided to hold the second round of talks by the end of July.  However, the Taliban canceled the meeting after the Afghan government confirmed Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death.

The demise of Mullah Omar, who according to Afghan intelligence died in April 2013, sent shockwaves through the Taliban’s rank-and-file, who had believed they were waging war in Afghanistan under his leadership. While a large part of the Taliban selected the group's second-in-line, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, as their new “Amir-ul- Mu'minin,” or leader of the faithful, others opposed his leadership. Syed Tayyab Agha, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, resigned after criticizing the way Mansour was chosen. Mullah Mansour Daddullah, one of the most feared Taliban commanders, told BBC that the Taliban movement was divided into three factions. Daddullah said that he, Mullah Qayum Zakir, the Taliban's military operational commander and several other leaders were supporting Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, to be the successor to his father.

The division among Taliban leadership has damaged their unity and weakened their military power. At the same time, it has created an opportunity for the Afghan government to engage with the insurgents.

Pakistan hesitates

While the demise of Mullah Omar provided a perfect opportunity for Kabul, the opposite is true for Islamabad. Pakistan, which helped found the Taliban movement in 1990s, has been using the Taliban as proxy force to counter the influence of its arch-rival India. Despite pressure by the United States and its allies over the past 14 years to eradicate Taliban sanctuaries on its soil, Pakistan has stood its ground.  In many cases, its intelligence agency, ISI, was accused by Afghan officials of directly supporting and assisting Taliban attacks inside Afghanistan.

More recently, Pakistan has come under pressure by the Afghan, US and regional governments, particularly Pakistan’s main ally, China. Islamabad initially agreed to support the Afghan peace process and to seek influence in Afghanistan through a political settlement involving the Taliban. However, with the current disunity among Taliban leadership, Pakistan sees less dividends in any peace deal and would rather wait until the Taliban resolve their differences and come to negotiating table in a stronger position.

An Afghan delegate, reportedly led by Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, is slated to arrive in Pakistan today to demand the arrest and expulsion of Taliban leaders from Islamabad. In a move that is widely seen to put further pressure on Islamabad prior to the delegation's trip, President Ghani briefed regional and western ambassadors in Kabul Aug. 11 on his government’s stance vis-à-vis Pakistan. According to a presidential statement, Ghani told the diplomats that the attack in Shah Shaheed was planned in Pakistan, and that Taliban leaders had publicly held gatherings after Mullah Omar’ death inside Pakistan, in which they announced a renewed commitment for war in Afghanistan.

 Ghani, who angered many Afghans for his rapprochement efforts with Pakistan, including former President Hamid Karzai and other top politicians, has already changed tone in the country with his recent stance. Amrullah Saleh, former chief of Afghan intelligence and Ghani’s steadfast critic, welcomed the president’s comments in a post on his Facebook page. Another of Ghani’s critic, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, the former interior minister who also served as Afghan ambassador to Islamabad, also commended the new position. In his Facebook statement, Daudzai called on all Afghan political figures to support Ghani’s cautious approach towards Pakistan and the Taliban.

Afghans also took to social media sites to express their support for the government's position by posting patriotic videos, pictures and comments. Some posts even called on Afghans to boycott Pakistani products and its currency. Some civil society activists also urged Afghan movie theaters to stop showing Pakistani films.

The zero-sum moment

Despite the harsh words from top officials on the Afghan side of Durand line, the Pakistani government reacted to Ghani’s comments with soft words, calling Afghanistan a “brotherly” nation with which it wanted to maintain “good neighbourly relations.” However, Pakistani media outlets lashed back at Ghani for his strong anti-Pakistani remarks and called it a “blame game.” Many Pakistani social media users blamed the recent bombing on Indian loyalists, who were allegedly against any peace deal with Taliban. In its first sign of displeasure, Pakistan on Tuesday postponed scholarships for Afghan students for the year 2015-2016, citing “recent developments and evolving security situation” in Afghanistan.

 The efforts in the past ten months to improve relations between two nations, which according to President Ghani have been in “undeclared state of hostility” for decades, could once again be derailed, giving rise to Taliban-led violence for many years to come.