Pak-Afghan ties: a fresh start

If words and body language are anything to go by, the Pak-Afghan relationship is warmer than ever. Part of the reason is certainly the exit of the mercurial former president Hamid Karzai from the equation, but that alone cannot explain why so many seem cautiously optimistic about the bilateral relationship going forward.

Surely, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani must get some of the credit, given his attempts to speak of Pakistan in warm terms and his willingness to not unnecessarily ruffle feathers here. But then, both Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the military leadership under Gen Raheel Sharif have also consistently held that a new chapter in relations in Afghanistan is not only possible, but also achievable — and have done several things to suggest that the old era of massive and coordinated interference in the security and politics of Afghanistan is indeed changing.

Yet, whether it is the bonhomie on display in London (far removed from the volatility that President Karzai brought to such meetings) or the quietly reassuring words of US Secretary of State John Kerry after his meeting with army chief Gen Raheel Sharif recently, it should not be forgotten that seemingly intractable problems remain. The key to solutions may be cooperation — bilateral and international — but causing interests to align is fiendishly difficult. Consider the vexing issue of cross-border militancy.

There is an attempt to squeeze sanctuaries and even go after the senior leadership of various militant groups operating on both sides of the border, but deep and historical suspicions remain. Ultimately, rather than the issue of better border management being subordinated to the matter of cross-militancy, a reversal will be needed if Pakistan and Afghanistan are to move incrementally, but irreversibly, towards more stable and secure domestic scenarios. Yet, the conversation tends to be more about immediate security threats and medium-term state concerns on both sides rather than a full-fledged understanding of how to marry a 21st century border regime with the reality of constant movement of tribes across a border they consider to be fluid. Perhaps President Ghani will be able to demonstrate a greater vision than his predecessor on this front.

Encouragingly though, the bilateral relationship seems to be also moving towards understanding the economic and political needs of Afghanistan, with some of the language focused on how the new dispensation in Kabul needs support to help it better deliver to the Afghan people. That should also help assuage Afghan concerns about Pakistani intentions, especially if the recent wave of Afghan Taliban attacks continues. But neither should there be any illusions about the urgency that is needed: if the Ashraf Ghani- and Abdullah Abdullah-led dispensation doesn’t demonstrate its bona fides quickly and political support drains away from them, the ghosts of the past may quickly return to haunt the relationship. The leaderships on both sides need to make the present count.–Dawn