Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani was given a red carpet welcome in Islamabad by the government and the military alike.”Peace and stability, everything to do with bilateral cooperation, political engagement, economic cooperation, the training program – everything is on the table,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said. This was Ghani’s first trip to Islamabad after a controversial election followed by a power sharing agreement with rival Abdullah Abdullah.
“We have overcome the obstacles of thirteen years in three days, thank you,” he said in a press conference with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “We are starting a new chapter in relations with Afghanistan. I reaffirmed that a full, stable, united and prosperous Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s vital national interest,” said Sharif, who rushed back from Germany to welcome the Afghan president.
Behind the scenes, Janan Mosazai, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, worked hard to make the trip successful. “The visit was one of the most successful we have had, and it will redefine our relationship with Afghanistan,” said Sirtaj Aziz, Pakistan’s national security adviser.
“We have overcome the obstacles of thirteen years in three days”
The military seems to agree. Ghani was given a momentous guard of honor inside its General Headquarters by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif. “The Pakistani military views the new government in Kabul as being different from the Karzai government and wants to help it strengthen,” said Muhammad Tahir, a senior official in a Pakistani security agency.
The Karzai complication
Sitting in the ISI headquarters, the agency’s former director-general Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha was coordinating measures that would change the face of insurgency in Afghanistan for a long time to come. The spymaster was to conduct raids, with the American CIA, on Taliban’s Quetta Shura in Karachi, Faisalabad and Nowshera. That would mean arresting 70 percent of the network’s strength in one go. According to an official who took part in these raids, “It was part of a change of policy on the Pakistani side.”
In dramatic operations carried out in February 2010, the ISI and the CIA caught Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Mullah Abdul Rauf, Mullah Muhammad Hassan, Mullah Ahmad Jan Akhundzada, and Mullah Younis from Karachi – all key members of the Quetta Shura. On January 26 that year, Mullah Mir Muhammad was caught in Faisalabad and Mullah Abdul Salam and Abdul Kabir were arrested in Nowshera. These raids were conducted under the supervision of ISI ex-chief Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, who was the Karachi corps commander at that time.
In fact, by the end of 2009, Pakistan had chalked out a strategy with the Americans and the British, with the help of Qatar, to force Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura to talk to the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan. That was Pakistan’s end of the bargain. “To ensure that Karzai and Afghanistan behave was the American end of the bargain,” said Carl Adams, a former NATO commander in Afghanistan, but “unfortunately, Karzai became a spoiler.”
Ties between Islamabad and Kabul began to worsen. Karzai accused Pakistan of continuing to support militancy in Afghanistan, especially pointing to the safe havens of the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan. Pakistan, which had declined to send troops to North Waziristan at that time, alleged Karzai was supporting the Pakistani Taliban. A New York Times report in October 2013 said the US had caught the Afghan government plotting with the Pakistani Taliban, and “raided an Afghan convoy that was ushering a senior Pakistan Taliban militant, Latif Mehsud, to Kabul for secret talks”.
A change in policy
During the tenure of former army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as the IG Training and Evaluation, Gen Raheel Sharif “vociferously recommended moving away from the traditional rivalry with India and to deal with internal threats within Pakistan first,” says security expert Maj Gen (r) Muhammad Ali. A change in policy is apparent since he took over as the military chief.
“Gen Raheel’s new doctrine for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, which he conceived against home-grown jihadis, is well reflected in the form of success the is being achieved in the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which means Raheel Sharif and Pakistan Army have decided to clear all areas within Pakistan’s borders of all militant organizations,” Gen Ali said.
“These barbarians played football with the heads of our soldiers”
“These miscreants, these barbarians played football with the heads of our soldiers and that scene never went off my mind,” Gen Sharif said at a speech at the Pakistani embassy in Washington during his recent visit to the US. “I would like to openly say that this (operation) is against all hues and colours, and it is without any exception, whether it is Haqqani network or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or anything,” he added. “After I took the command of the forces we were determined to eliminate these militants. We consulted with the political government and launched the operation.”
Meanwhile, “we had also seen a change in the attitude of Haseeb Siddiqui, the spokesman for the Afghan intelligence agency National Directorate of Security,” said a senior military commander posted in Islamabad. “There was a visible change in Kabul and we are reciprocating with the Raheel Doctrine – an all out operation against all militants.”
First, Gen Sharif was given an extraordinary welcome in Kabul by the new administration. He was asked for Pakistan Army to train Afghan troops. Then, the new ISI chief Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar was sent to Kabul, and reportedly met his Afghan counterpart Rehmatullah Nabil. According to one Afghan official who asked not to be named, the meeting was “a turning point in the relationship between the two agencies”.
This coincides with what Gen Sharif called an “upward trajectory” in ties with the US during his trip to America. The visit comes at a time when there seemed to be a disagreement between the two allies on the endgame in Afghanistan. According to one official, he has assured the US that “Pakistan is going for the kill in the tribal areas especially against Haqqanis and disbanding all safe havens within Pakistan”. In return, the US “will take care of NDS and the rouge elements within Afghanistan.” Pakistani newspapers called it a successful visit.
Maj Bradlee Avots, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, referred to a “positive momentum gained through recent, high-level discussions between Afghan and Pakistani officials, Pakistan’s progress in its fight against militants, and US intent to sustain security assistance that improves the Pakistan military’s counterinsurgency capabilities against militant groups within its borders”.
But former Afghan president Karzai is less optimistic.“Ashraf Ghani has no other option but to seek peace with Pakistan,” he says. “I don’t see a difference between Taliban and Pakistan now, as Pakistan provided them sanctuary.”
The biggest challenges that Afghanistan and Pakistan will face in mending their ties are the future of the Haqqani Network, talks between Taliban and the Afghan government, and India’s influence in Kabul.