Does the meeting between the heads of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) on February 4 mark the turning of a new page in bilateral relations? Ostensibly, yes. And for a number of reasons. First, following the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death last year, the hostility towards Pakistan in Afghanistan had peaked to unprecedented levels. As a consequence, most of the leadership in Kabul had refused to travel to Islamabad. Most Afghan political parties and the media were up in arms, questioning their government and Pakistan’s motives for proposing intelligence cooperation. The NDS Director-General Masud Andrabi’s presence in Islamabad means the Afghan security establishment has ended the self-imposed ban on coming over. This is indeed a big step forward, given the acrimonious context prevailing since July last year.
Second, on January 30, Corps Commander Lieutenant General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali led an eight-member delegation of the Afghan National Army to Peshawar Corps Headquarters, where rare consultations were held with Corps Commander Lieutenant General Hidayatur Rehman on enhancing coordination and security measures on both sides of the border, a demand Pakistan has often flagged with Afghanistan as part of its counter-terrorism campaign.
Third, this rare face-to-face NDS-ISI interaction came ahead of the Quadrilateral Contact Group’s (QCG) February 6 round, sparking hopes that both sides were possibly inching towards closer cooperation — an unavoidable prerequisite for making some sense out of the QCG’s incremental approach on the reconciliation endeavor. Viewed against former NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabeel’s hawkish views on Pakistan (and his aversion to the word ‘border’ for the Durand Line) and the sheer displeasure that he had expressed in his resignation a day before the Heart of Asia Conference on December 9 in Islamabad, Andrabi’s discussions with General Rizwan Akhtar assumed unusual importance. Fourth, a toning down of the hostile anti-Pakistan rhetoric coming from Kabul’s governmental and non-governmental circles had preceded these visits, indicating pragmatism was gradually taking over in the Afghan capital.
Delegates at the latest round of Pak-Afghan Track 1.5 at Bhurban also testified that the number of postings on social media and media leaks targeting Pakistan had considerably gone down since the Heart of Asia conference. This had helped improve the narrative on Pakistan. The Afghan members of the latest Track 1.5 agreed on the need for opinion-multipliers from both sides to avoid oft-repeated contentious cliches and instead build on the positives.
Last, the presence of China and the US seems to have made a big difference to the Pak-Afghan conversation within the QCG framework. The Afghan government and civil society is attaching considerable importance to this mechanism as a possible lifeline for their conflict-torn country. They point out that few in Afghanistan would reconcile with the Taliban ideology, but the majority would welcome those who agree to lay down arms and accept the supremacy of the Afghan state in its totality. In this context, Afghans have high expectations of Pakistan. Its role, they believe, goes beyond facilitation. Afghans believe that if pressurized by Pakistan, the number of reconcilable Afghan Taliban can increase.
Afghan, however, also caution against those from both sides of the border, who are looking to spoil the positives — vested interests associated with the war economy (elements within and outside the government, people sympathetic to the Taliban, criminal syndicates that have relations with terrorist/militant networks and so on). Observers also warn against a common challenge — how to deal with those politicians and media who project things in black and white, willingly or inadvertently ignoring many grey areas that usually govern bilateral or multilateral relations. A big question staring us in the face is: what if the QCG process fails in achieving its objectives? Pakistan attempted talks with the TTP, and eventually had to launch a crackdown. Will a failure of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan lead to fresh international fighting? Clearly, 15 years of insurgency has led the international community to conclude that force offers no solution. The vibes emerging out of the QCG appear to be positive and underscore that pragmatism is guiding the process. It also indicates a new realization in Afghanistan and Pakistan that a successful reconciliation process requires close policy coordination, better border management and above all, intelligence-sharing on both sides of the border.
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate
This article first appeared at The Express Tribune. Click here to go to the original.