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Damned if you do…

June 15, 2015

Summary: …damned if you don’t.  Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to engage with Pakistan over the Taliban are criticised from all sides.

You have to feel sorry for Ashraf Ghani. His genuine efforts to reach out to Pakistan, recognising the key role they can play in helping to resolve his own security issues with the Afghan Taliban, are proving difficult.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) speak as they watch a cricket match between teams from Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Prime Minister's house in Islamabad on November 15, 2014. Pakistan and Afghanistan pledged to begin a new era of economic cooperation, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani saying three days of talks had ended 13 years of differences. AFP PHOTO/Farooq NAEEM

The Guardian, November 2014: The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has arrived for his first visit to neighbouring Pakistan, seeking to improve ties crucial to his hopes of reviving Taliban peace talk as US and allied troops end their 13-year war.  Ghani will hold talks with the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the pair are expected to watch a cricket match between the two countries on Saturday in a public demonstration of better relations despite fraught cross-border tensions. Both countries accuse each other of allowing militants to shelter in the border regions and launch bloody attacks that threaten regional stability. The former Afghan president Hamid Karzai routinely accused Pakistan of continuing to fuel the Taliban insurgency to destabilise his country as a hedge against Indian influence there.

A stable – and, even better, friendly – relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan will be of great social, economic, political and security benefit to the two countries and the region as a whole.  But neither side trusts the other.  Afghanistan refuses to recognises the current border between the two countries, it (the Durand Line) being a line on a map drawn by the British at the height of their imperial powers in the late 19th century.  It bisects Pushtun tribes than Afghanistan believes are rightfully Afghan.  Pakistan cannot get over its deep-seated fear of “encirclement” by India, requiring it to seek strong control over its western neighbour, lest India does so.  This led it to nurture and support the Afghan Taliban as a potential “client” regime during the 1990s and, more controversially, after the international military defeat of the Taliban in 2001.  Afghanistan cannot forgive or forget this.  Many Afghan political groups are convinced that Pakistani assurances they do not support the Afghan Taliban any longer are worthless.  Cross-border artillery exchanges are not uncommon. The Afghan Taliban use north-western Pakistan as a safe haven in which to rest, regroup and train.  A key dilemma revolves around Ghani’s need to seek Pakistan’s help to direct the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating.  Most of the Afghan Taliban leadership are based in Pakistan and the Pakistani regime certainly has the ability to contact them.  But the Afghan Taliban – to many analysts and Afghans – remain a useful tool of the Pakistan army and intelligence services and the Pakistani/Taliban relationship is highly suspect.

Ashraf Ghani will be required to reach out to Pakistan and simultaneously take a tough line on any suggestions that Pakistan is not genuine in their efforts to push the Taliban to the peace table.

BBC, January 2015: Now that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has unveiled a new cabinet he needs to urgently talk to the Taliban – and Pakistan’s generals, on whom he has staked his political future, must do more to help than they have publicly admitted to, writes guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

Former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, whose own relationship with Pakistan was something of a roller coaster ride, has criticised Ghani’s reach-out

Al Jazeera, May 2015: The inking of an intelligence cooperation accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised growing voices of concern at all levels in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have signed a memorandum of understanding which – according to the Afghan Presidential Palace – is aimed “mostly [at] jointly fighting terrorism”.

Expressing his deep concerns about the signing of the agreement, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a statement called on the government to “immediately cancel” the MoU. It is said that the current and former presidents had a “very tense” telephone conversation on this issue on Wednesday.

The inking of an intelligence cooperation accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised growing voices of concern at all levels in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have signed a memorandum of understanding which – according to the Afghan Presidential Palace – is aimed “mostly [at] jointly fighting terrorism”.

Suggestions that the Afghan parliament feel similarly:

VOA, May 2015: Former president Karzai said he has serious concerns about last week’s agreement signed by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Karzai is urging President Ghani to withdraw from the memorandum of understanding, on the grounds that it is against Afghanistan’s national interests.

A majority of lawmakers in the lower house of the parliament are taking a similar stand. During Wednesday’s session in Kabul they demanded that the intelligence agreement be scrapped immediately, and they summoned top officials of the NDS and Ghani’s national security adviser to appear before the House next week.

Media reports said that NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil declined to sign the accord with Pakistan’s ISI, leaving it instead for his deputy to initial.

The Wall Street Times notes the fluidity of the issue:

Wall Street Journal, 1 June 2105: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned Pakistan he would reverse a diplomatic outreach unless Islamabad clamps down on Taliban activities and puts its leaders under house arrest, venting frustration as Kabul faces an onslaught of attacks by the insurgents.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said it was committed to peace and bettering relations with neighbor Afghanistan, adding that they share a common enemy.
Mr. Ghani’s office said in an official communication to Pakistani political and military leaders that if Islamabad is serious about helping bring peace to Afghanistan, it should quickly rein in the Taliban.
“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 said.
The tone of the letter, sent in recent days and viewed by The Wall Street Journal, suggests Kabul’s patience is wearing thin with Pakistan’s military and foreign-policy establishment.
Mr. Ghani spent his first months in power courting Pakistan’s leadership to end years of mutual hostility, with the ultimate goal of getting Islamabad to facilitate a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

It will be a fraught and generally thankless juggling act for the president, with no guarantee of tangible success during his term.

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