As U.S. urges unity against ter­ror­ism, Pak­istani and Afghan mis­trust en­dures

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­post.com

kabul — When Pak­istan’s army chief vis­ited the Afghan cap­i­tal Oct. 1, he did his best to dis­arm his hosts. He of­fered to train and equip Afghan troops, and he promised to co­op­er­ate in peace and coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts. Afghan of­fi­cials, in turn, re­ceived him with a mil­i­tary honor guard and is­sued an up­beat state­ment herald­ing “a new sea­son” in their trou­bled re­la­tion­ship.

But be­hind the diplo­matic ges­tures, there was lit­tle to in­di­cate that any­thing had changed. Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani, hu­mil­i­ated in pre­vi­ous at­tempts to mend fences and take Pak­istani of­fi­cials at their word, de­manded coolly that mon­i­tor­ing teams and mech­a­nisms be es­tab­lished to en­sure all prom­ises and dead­lines were im­ple­mented.

Even be­fore Gen. Qa­mar Javed Ba­jwa’s plane de­parted, the bar­rage of crit­i­cism had be­gun. Afghan an­a­lysts, politi­cians and for­mer of­fi­cials pro­nounced his visit an­other at­tempt by Pak­istan to “de­ceive” their coun­try while se­cretly sup­port­ing anti-Afghan mil­i­tants. Ba­jwa had come call­ing only out of des­per­a­tion, they said, be­cause of in­tense pres­sure from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Pak­istan is try­ing to pre­tend it is chang­ing, but af­ter 16 years of dou­ble games, these are only tac­ti­cal moves,” said Rah­mat­ul­lah Na­bil, a for­mer Afghan in­tel­li­gence chief. “Pak­istan has been us­ing ter­ror­ism as a tool of state pol­icy for decades, and Afghanistan has been the vic­tim of ter­ror­ism for decades. As long as Pak­istan does not change this pol­icy, no equi­lib­rium can be es­tab­lished.”

Pak­istan has rea­son to feel desperate. Faced with the threat of un­prece­dented U.S. sanc­tions and fresh ac­cu­sa­tions that it has not done enough to stop cross­bor­der at­tacks into Afghanistan, its mil­i­tary has re­sponded with a va­ri­ety of tac­tics: in­dig­nant de­nials, aid of­fers, his­tory lessons, he­li­copter tours of paci­fied bor­der zones, con­do­lence mes­sages to Afghan bomb­ing vic­tims and high-pro­file ef­forts to build a wall along their 1,800-mile bor­der.

But noth­ing seems to be work­ing.

Last week in Wash­ing­ton, se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials re­peated charges that Pak­istan is pro­vid­ing sanc­tu­ary for an ag­gres­sive Tal­iban fac­tion known as the Haqqani net­work. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a con­gres­sional panel it was “clear” that Pak­istan’s in­tel­li­gence agency “has con­nec­tions with ter­ror­ist groups.”

At a sep­a­rate hear­ing, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would try “one more time” to work with Pak­istan on the Tal­iban is­sue, but if it failed, “the pres­i­dent is pre­pared to take what­ever steps are nec­es­sary.” He said that could in­clude re­vok­ing Pak­istan’s sta­tus as a ma­jor non-NATO ally, a harsh blow to the for­mer Cold War part­ner.

Pak­istan has con­sis­tently de­nied pro­vid­ing shel­ter to anti-Afghan mil­i­tants. Its prime min­is­ter told the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly re­cently it was “es­pe­cially galling” to hear such crit­i­cism when Pak­istan has suf­fered from years of ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Its for­eign min­is­ter told an­other au­di­ence in New York this past week that Wash­ing­ton had no right to con­demn Pak­istan for sup­port­ing mil­i­tant lead­ers it had “wined and dined” dur­ing past con­flicts.

Asked Thurs­day about the lat­est U.S. com­ments, Pak­istan’s For­eign Min­istry spokesman said that Pak­istan has “suc­cess­fully erased the foot­print of ter­ror­ists from our soil” and that most in­sur­gent ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing at­tacks on Pak­istan, em­anate from “un­governed spa­ces inside Afghanistan” rather than from Pak­istani havens.

De­spite their doubts, some Afghan of­fi­cials say they be­lieve Pak­istan’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment is be­ing forced to pivot in its think­ing on Afghanistan. They see Ba­jwa’s visit to Kabul as a sign of this shift — es­pe­cially his oneon-one meet­ing with Ghani, which one Afghan diplo­mat de­scribed as un­usu­ally can­did, “con­struc­tive and en­cour­ag­ing.”

Pak­istan once backed Tal­iban rule in Kabul, and it has long sought to keep Afghanistan weak and de­pen­dent as a coun­ter­weight to In­dia, its pow­er­ful neigh­bor and ri­val to the east. But now, Pak­istan’s re­gional part­ners and in­vestors are echo­ing new U.S. de­mands that it help end the 16-year Afghan con­flict, which they see as a threat to sta­bil­ity.

“From our past ex­pe­ri­ence, no Afghan should be optimistic about Pak­istan sup­port­ing our cause. But the new Amer­i­can strat­egy has cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity that it should ex­plore,” said Javed Faisal, a se­nior aide to Afghanistan’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah. He said Pak­istan’s sup­port for mil­i­tants abroad had back­fired.

“If they don’t change, they will face iso­la­tion from the world,” Faisal said. “We should work with them to build trust and tackle ter­ror­ism to­gether.”

Skep­ti­cal Afghans point to years of bro­ken prom­ises, failed meet­ings and peace ini­tia­tives that went nowhere. For­mer pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai made an un­prece­dented trip to Is­lam­abad a decade ago, car­ry­ing a list of Tal­iban hide­outs, and came back empty-handed. Ghani praised Pak­istan in 2015 for host­ing peace talks, only to be mor­ti­fied when Pak­istan sud­denly re­vealed the death of for­mer Tal­iban leader Mo­ham­mad Omar and can­celed the talks.

Within Pak­istan, there is also re­sis­tance to rap­proche­ment or con­ces­sions. The week of Sept. 24, the new in­te­rior min­is­ter was rep­ri­manded by Par­lia­ment for sug­gest­ing that the coun­try should “put its own house in or­der” be­fore seek­ing for­eign sup­port. Even Ba­jwa, the most pow­er­ful of­fi­cial in Pak­istan, faced some push­back for his diplo­matic foray. The mil­i­tary spokesman, while tout­ing the ini­tia­tive, noted that “there was some dis­com­fort in se­cu­rity and civil quar­ters” about it.

Mu­nir Akram, a for­mer Pak­istani diplo­mat with strong na­tion­al­ist views, wrote re­cently that ef­forts to en­gage with the United States will prove fruit­less and that Pres­i­dent Trump’s new pol­icy of send­ing more troops and putting pres­sure on Is­lam­abad is not aimed at paci­fy­ing Afghanistan but at im­pos­ing a broad “Pax Indo-Amer­i­cana” on the re­gion.

“Pak­istan should pre­pare it­self to bear the pain of threat­ened U.S. sanc­tions. It should draw its own red lines,” Mu­nir wrote in Dawn, a ma­jor daily news­pa­per in Pak­istan. “Any sign of weak­ness will in­ten­sify, not ame­lio­rate, U.S. co­er­cion.”

Even if it is in Pak­istan’s ur­gent in­ter­est to smooth its re­la­tions with Afghanistan, some an­a­lysts said, the most in­tractable ob­sta­cle is the gulf be­tween Afghan and Pak­istani per­cep­tions of re­gional real­ity. Afghans see the Tal­iban in­sur­gency as the main threat to their se­cu­rity and Pak­istan as its backer; Pak­istan sees In­dia as a per­ma­nent threat to its ex­is­tence and its friend­ship with Afghanistan as an ex­ten­sion of that threat.

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