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Afghanistan And Pakistan Declare Cooperation, But Suspicions Persist

The 'Friendship Gate' on the Chaman border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The 'Friendship Gate' on the Chaman border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have spoken of a new cooperative relationship to combat terrorism and resilient Taliban insurgencies in the two neighboring countries amid longstanding disagreements and mistrust.

Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed on June 26 that the two countries will pursue all terrorists operating from their territories.

Rangin Dadfar Spanta
Rangin Dadfar Spanta

"The two sides agreed that terrorism was a common enemy, and emphasized closer cooperation and coordination at an institutional level to deal with this common menace," a joint statement issued by Pakistan's foreign ministry on June 26 said. "Both sides agreed on the need to take action against all terrorists, without making any distinction among them and their hideouts on their respective sides."

The statement is the result of intense personal diplomacy by Sharif. He sent a senior politician to Kabul this month to convince a skeptical Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Islamabad was serious in combatting terrorist sanctuaries on its soil, but that it needs Kabul's cooperation to eliminate insurgent hideouts along its western border with Afghanistan.

After meeting Sharif's envoy, Mahmood Khan Achakzai, last week, Karzai said that he had conveyed his willingness to cooperate with Islamabad.

"My message [to the Pakistani leader] was that if they are sincere in their fight against terrorism and it is aimed at eliminating all terrorists -- everyone who is targeting Afghanistan and Pakistan and other countries -- then we are willing to stand with you," he told a delegation of Afghan clerics on June 20. "I also conveyed to him we are ready to discuss a joint strategy to practically map all the steps required."

Achakzai, a Pashtun lawmaker in Pakistan and a personal friend of Karzai, is the leader of Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, an ethno-nationalist organization opposed to Islamabad's decades-old clandestine support for Afghan insurgent groups.

Mahmood Khan Achakzai met Karzai recently.
Mahmood Khan Achakzai met Karzai recently.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal this week, Achakzai said that Karzai wants Islamabad to genuinely recognize Afghanistan's sovereignty and refrain from interfering in its domestic affairs.

"He has conveyed to Nawaz Sharif clearly that if Islamabad recognizes Afghanistan as an independent [and] sovereign country, then we can be friends," Achakzai said. "[Karzai has also proposed that] with the help of the international community, the two countries can conclude an agreement to guarantee that they will not support armed rebels against each other."

Senator Afrasiab Khattak, another Pashtun lawmaker and a long-time advocate of cooperation between the two countries, praised Sharif's effort to improve relations with Kabul through Pashtun intermediaries.

"It looks like Islamabad is now engaging Pashtun leaders in its attempt to improve relations with Afghanistan," he told Radio Mashaal. "This is a positive development because they can play an effective role in reconciling the two countries."

Some 50 million Pashtuns straddle the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan established in the 19th century. Some 15 million Pashtuns live to the west of the boundary in Afghanistan and make up the largest ethnic group in the country. Pakistan's 35 million Pashtun citizens are the country's second biggest community.

Peshawar-based journalist and commentator Rahimullah Yousafzai, is not optimistic about an immediate breakthrough in relations between the two neighbors.

"If we look at the past, there were many instances of high-level meetings, and agreements were concluded and promises were made. But they were rarely pursued and fulfilled," he said. "So in the light of those experiences we can say that the hopes for cooperation are minimal. I don't think that the [leaders of the two countries] are now eager to trust each other. They still face too many hurdles in their attempts to cooperate."

For Islamabad, one of the biggest obstacles is the alleged presence of Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries in the mountainous provinces of Kunar and Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan.

Kabul, on the other hand, has repeatedly accused Islamabad of harboring the leaders and fighters of the Afghan Taliban and Hizb-e Islami. The two Islamist organizations have been at the forefront of the fight against Afghan and international security forces during the past decade.

Renewed fighting in a remote Afghan province this week is already testing the limits of antiterrorism cooperation between the two countries.

As Afghan National Security Adviser Spanta discussed cooperation with Pakistani politicians and generals in Islamabad, officials in the southern province of Helmand told journalists that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence was involved in a large Taliban offensive in Helmand.

A week of intense fighting in Helmand saw some 250 rebels, soldiers and civilians killed.

Maliha Amirzada, Abdul Hai Kakar, Boriwal Kakar and Shaheen Buneri contributed reporting to this story.