Kabul and Islamabad need to come together in the interest of regional peace.
The honeymoon between Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan seems to be over. The bonhomie and camaraderie with Pakistan that became apparent with Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s assumption of the mantle of Presidency was always going to be brittle and frail because of the weak wicket of the incumbent Afghan President. His predecessor Hamid Karzai used to call Pakistan and Afghanistan conjoined twins in one breath while in the next he would hurl insults at it. Hamid Karzai’s case was different. Firstly, he was under Indian influence, secondly he had little control over the affairs in Afghanistan; thirdly there were severe allegations of corruption against the former Afghan President and his family. Possibly to draw attention from his shortcomings and failures he found a convenient scapegoat in Pakistan. In his final days of presidency, Karzai was highly critical of his greatest benefactor, USA, refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Accord with the country.
Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s problem is diverse. Firstly, he heads a unity government, which comprises hardliner Northern Alliance leaders like Abdullah Abdullah and a motley crowd of warlords, who have different stakes in the government. Ashraf Ghani is a technocrat and a former senior World Bank official, whose international exposure has broadened his wisdom and vision. He does not carry any baggage of former favours by the US, India, Pakistan or any other external force. He genuinely believed that Pakistan could support the peace process in Afghanistan, thus his first port of call was Islamabad, where breaking with protocol, he met Pakistan’s Army Chief at the GHQ.
Despite serious hiccups like the Army Public School attack in Peshawar in which intelligence agencies had evidence of the perpetrators of the heinous assault being controlled from Afghan soil, the solidarity withstood. Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency ISI and the Afghan security organization
NDS signed an agreement for sharing intelligence. Afghans cadets arrived for training at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul but apparently, some of Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s own partners in the government were highly critical of his overtures to Pakistan. There were other detractors too, who did not appreciate the growing propinquity between Kabul and Islamabad. One of the first actions that Dr. Ashraf Ghani took after being sworn in as President was canceling a defence supply agreement with India. His visit to New Delhi came many months after visiting Pakistan, where he did emphasize that relations with Pakistan are not a zero sum game but ties between India and Afghanistan remained lukewarm.
During the Chief of General Staff Afghan National Army General Sher Mohammad Karimi’s visit to Pakistan, while he was reviewing the passing out parade of the Cadets at the PMA Kakul, a suicide bomb blast in Jalalabad killed 33 people and injured more than 100 outside a bank, where government workers collect salaries. Just after the first peace talks between Afghan officials and Afghan Taliban, hosted by Pakistan and observed by China and USA at Murree, a series of terror attacks rocked different locations in Afghanistan. Certainly some critics did not want Pakistan and Afghanistan to shed their mistrust and work closely. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai was one of the most vocal opponents of Pakistan’s role in the peace process.
Worse was yet to come; on the eve of the second round of talks between the Afghan officials and Taliban, while both team members had reached Islamabad, the news of the death of Mullah Omar was disclosed. Kabul claimed that Mullah Omar had expired two years earlier in Karachi though Islamabad denied that the Taliban leader’s demise took place on Pakistan soil. Whatever the truth, the peace talks were scuttled and a new leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour replaced Mullah Omar. Apparently he was not a unanimous choice and a split appeared in the rank and file of the Afghan Taliban. The new Taliban leader did announce his support for negotiations for peace but insisted that violent attacks would continue. As if on cue or perpetrated by splinter groups, Kabul was again targeted by terrorists and a huge toll of casualties resulted.
This was the last straw that broke the camel’s back and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who was already under tremendous pressure from within his government for trusting Pakistan, now lost his patience and lashed out at his erstwhile ally. The oft-repeated accusations of Pakistan supporting the terrorists were echoing again. Ghani, in his address
If the venue of Pakistan is deemed unacceptable for hosting the peace talks, let it be a neutral location acceptable to both stakeholders.