Over the past 15 years, Pakistan and Afghanistan have frequently accused one another of sheltering hostile Taliban factions responsible for deadly insurgencies and frequent terrorist attacks in the two neighboring countries.
Kabul and Islamabad, however, now seem on the cusp of extraordinary cooperation to stand against all stripes of militant groups operating in the two countries.
The agreement, if successful, will help resolve longstanding conflicts and is likely to help restore peace and stability between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tens of thousands of soldiers, civilians, and insurgents have been killed in terrorist attacks, air strikes, and military operations since 2001.
“We have seen progress toward a commitment to realistic and nondiscriminatory cooperation in the fight against terrorism as a result of the recent talks between the officials of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” a statement by the Afghan Foreign Ministry noted on March 20. “Afghanistan sees terrorism as a threat for the two countries and the region and is committed to cooperation in the fight against terrorism.”
Last week, senior Afghan and Pakistani officials met in talks hosted by the UK government in London. British National Security Adviser Mark Lyall Grant mediated the talks between Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar and Pakistani prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz.
Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan envoy to Pakistan, represented his country in the March 15 talks. He said the two countries have agreed on a mechanism to go after militants responsible for attacks in one country while hiding in the other.
“For the first time, we have agreed on [antiterrorism] measures acceptable to the other country. We have also agreed on a short verification process to satisfy both countries” that actions are genuine, he told Radio Free Afghanistan on March 21. “We are cautiously optimistic because our demands for a verification process were accepted.”
Terrorists have greatly benefited from the fraught relations between the two countries, which are plagued by deep suspicion and mistrust.
Since 2002, Kabul has accused Islamabad of sheltering the Afghan Taliban and bankrolling their deadly violence across Afghanistan. In response, Pakistan has accused Afghanistan of harboring Baluch nationalist rebels. Since late 2009, Islamabad has viewed eastern Afghan provinces as the main hideout for fugitive leaders of the Pakistani Taliban.
Following a wave of terrorist attacks last month, Islamabad put the blame on the Pakistani Taliban hiding in Afghanistan. The country’s powerful military handed over a list of 76 “most wanted terrorists” to Kabul and closed all crossings along the more than 2,500-kilometer border between the two countries.
FILE: Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, Afghan ambassador to Pakistan.
In a tit-for-tat move, Kabul sent Islamabad a list of 85 individuals and reiterated its longstanding demands that Pakistan shut down Taliban hideouts. Since February 17, officials in the eastern Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar have accused Islamabad of unprovoked cross-border shelling.
Zakhilwal now says the two sides have worked out a mechanism to address their mutual concerns and act on the lists of suspected terrorists they exchanged last month. However, he refused to elaborate on the details of the mechanism the two countries have agreed to implement.
“It is sufficient to say that the verification process we agreed on is acceptable to us and certainly satisfies their demands because they have agreed to it, too,” he said.
He says both countries are trying to go beyond past practices where one side would share the intelligence and the other would declare they found nothing.
“We will be able to observe each other’s actions with the help of our international allies until we can fully implement this agreement in both countries,” he said.
Zakhilwal says the process will be implemented soon wherein initial small reciprocal steps will build confidence for undertaking big measures with a visible footprint.
“We will begin implementing this within one month, and it should bear some visible preliminary results within this timeframe,” he noted.
Meanwhile, in a sign of improving relations, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the reopening of border crossings with Afghanistan on March 20.
“The closure of the border between the two countries -- having centuries old religious, cultural, and historic relations -- was against the economic and public interest,” Sharif said.