Afghanistan's new President Ashraf Ghani will visit Islamabad later this week in a bid to shore up relations that foundered badly under the previous Karzai regime. Since taking office six weeks ago, Ghani has prioritized building better ties with Pakistan and is exploring ways to start peace negotiations with Taliban insurgents, many of whom shelter inside Pakistan. Whether Pakistan reciprocates Ghani's peace-making moves will determine the extent to which Islamist terrorism engulfs the region in the coming years.
The United States has a role to play here. It can press the two sides to reinvigorate military contacts, with an aim to reduce terrorist movement across borders and it can facilitate closer economic and trade cooperation as a way to build confidence between the two countries. If the two sides miss this opportunity to improve cooperation, they will open the door for Islamist extremist insurgents to continue attacks in both countries, such as the recent devastating attack on the Wagah border crossing that claimed nearly 55 Pakistani lives.
Seeking Fresh Start
Relations between Islamabad and Kabul experienced both highs and lows under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai had a good personal rapport with former Pakistani President Asif Zardari and made several visits to Pakistan. Following the 2011 assassination of High Peace Council leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, however, Kabul's relations with Islamabad soured, and Karzai started to look increasingly toward India as a future regional partner.
Three weeks after Rabbani's assassination, Karzai visited New Delhi and struck a Strategic Partnership agreement, which included, among other things, India providing military training and equipment to Afghan forces. This led to a slowing of Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral visits, escalating exchanges of accusations regarding terrorist attacks on both sides of the border, and an uptick in cross-border firing incidents.
Ashraf Ghani wants to turn the situation around and he has moved quickly to do so: inviting Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain to his inauguration ceremony; accepting an invitation to visit Pakistan; declaring a new chapter in relations was beginning; and calling for better trade relations and more bilateral exchanges. Ghani has reportedly asked key advisors to tee up a detailed plan of initiatives to improve relations.
These initiatives may include steps to improve trade and economic engagement and people-to-people ties. For instance, the two sides need to work out a solution for the approximately 1 million undocumented Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan. They also need to review the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade agreement that was signed in 2010 to increase bilateral trade and enhance regional integration. They made some progress last month in enhancing regional connectivity when they signed an agreement over transit pricing for a major electricity project that aims to provide electricity from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif made a trip on Nov. 6 to Kabul, where he met Ghani, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, and Defense Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi, adding to the sense that both sides want to turn a new page in relations. During his meetings, Sharif repeated a long-standing offer to train Afghan soldiers.
Stable Afghan Leadership, Concerns over ISIS Drive Regional Cooperation
Pakistani leaders will welcome a more stable and predictable leader at the helm in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani's signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States shortly after assuming power demonstrates that he is likely to be more decisive and less prickly in his approach to U.S. relations than the mercurial Karzai.
Signing the BSA demonstrates to both Afghans and the region that Kabul and Washington will work together to avoid an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces. Observers had been concerned that failure to complete the BSA would lead to the complete withdrawal of international forces by the end of this year, much like what happened in Iraq at the end of 2011.
The recent gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have increased pressure on the White House to ensure the U.S. does not withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan. Concerns about the rise of ISIS and what it means for terrorism trends in South Asia also may be motivating Afghan and Pakistani leaders to seek enhanced cooperation. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video released in September, announced a new South Asia wing of al Qaeda. Zawahiri's announcement may have been driven by concern about competition with ISIS for recruits, financing, and a desire to show that the al Qaeda/Taliban nexus in South Asia is alive and well with ideological sway in the region.
Some factions of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) that have been targeted by Pakistani military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) recently pledged allegiance to ISIS. While the rise of ISIS may help to splinter Islamist extremist groups in South Asia, ISIS's ability to take over large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and draw foreign fighters from around the world is a cause for major concern about the strong appeal of the extremist ideology.
Shifting the Paradigm
Curbing the threat to the region from Islamist extremists requires improved relations and better cooperation between the Pakistani and Afghan governments. With the establishment of a Unity government in Afghanistan led by a president committed to seeking improved ties with neighbors and a Pakistan military offensive that is helping to uproot sanctuaries of terrorists that operate on both sides of the border, the time is ripe for building cooperation on a range of issues.
While there is scope for improving economic and trade ties and enhancing regional connectivity, the Pakistan military must also show greater willingness to crack down on Taliban sanctuaries on its side of the border. Its recent offensive against TTP hide-outs in North Waziristan is welcome, but it must broaden the crackdown to include all terrorist groups that operate in the region.
The TTP has links to terrorist groups that attack Afghanistan (and India), as well as al Qaeda, and exploits Pakistan's permissive policies toward other terrorist groups to conduct its own anti-government attacks. Thus, maintaining a selective approach to targeting terrorists not only jeopardizes Pakistan's efforts to improve regional relationships, it puts the country's internal security at risk and leads to attacks like the one that occurred at Wagah.
- Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in Foreign Policy