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Amid Deteriorating Ties With Pakistan, Afghan Leader Makes Tough Demands

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shake hands in November 2014.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shake hands in November 2014.

In a sign that Afghanistan is rethinking its outreach efforts to Pakistan, President Ashraf Ghani has demanded that Islamabad end its longstanding support for the Afghan Taliban.

In a letter to Pakistani civilian and military leaders, Ghani has requested specific steps to end the Taliban's sanctuary in their country and help in addressing their violent campaign inside Afghanistan.

Insiders at the Arg presidential palace in Kabul have confirmed that Ghani wrote a letter to Pakistani leaders this week asking them to prove their sincerity in backing the Afghan peace process by taking seven steps in the next three weeks.

"Islamabad should issue an official declaration condemning the launch of the Taliban [spring] offensive," an Afghan official familiar with the letter told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. Pakistan should "extend counterterrorism operations to the Haqqani network and arrest those responsible for the recent terrorist activities inside Afghanistan," the official said.

In one of the most revealing demands, Ghani has asked Pakistan's military leadership to issue a "directive" to deny sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban.

For the past 14 years, Kabul and its western allies have accused the powerful Pakistani military of turning a blind eye or even supporting the remnants of the Afghan Taliban regime hiding in and operating from Pakistan.

Another major demand included "placing Quetta and Peshawar shura (the Taliban leadership council) members under house arrest and initiating legal proceedings against them for threatening security of friendly states," said the official, who requested anonymity.

He said Ghani has also asked Islamabad to agree to an exchange of prisoners, deny Taliban combatants medical treatment inside Pakistan, and limit the sale of fertilizers and electrical switches that can be used in detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- a common killer of Afghan troops and civilians.

The letter is a marked turnaround for the Afghan leader, who made cultivating a cooperative, bilateral relationship with Pakistan one of his key foreign policy initiatives -- and a way of ending his country's decades-old war -- after assuming office in September.

During the past seven months, Ghani has worked hard to improve relations between the two neighbors from what he termed "undeclared hostilities" by clandestinely supporting insurgents toward friendship by invoking regional cooperation and trust between the two nations. To address Pakistani suspicions, he has toned down Afghanistan's traditional alliance with India and even attempted unprecedented security cooperation with Islamabad despite facing a crescendo of domestic opposition.

Barnett Rubin, a veteran scholar of Afghanistan, says Ghani has gotten little in return for taking considerable political risk by reaching out to Pakistan and trying to assuage the concerns its powerful security establishment claims to have about Afghanistan.

"Since he made all these efforts, the Taliban based in Pakistan have launched their biggest spring offensive ever, and I have not seen any evidence that anyone in Pakistan is trying to stop them," Rubin said.

"Unless Ghani can show Afghans that his efforts lead to concrete improvements in security and the prospect of a peace agreement, he will have no choice than to state publicly that Pakistan is trying to destabilize Afghanistan," he said.

Pakistani civilian and military leaders, however, have made pragmatic statements. Afghan officials were elated when Pakistan's powerful military chief, General Raheel Sharif, declared that the "enemies of Afghanistan are enemies of Pakistan" during a visit to Kabul in February.

But their hopes of seeing decisive action against the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan were dashed when the insurgents announced their spring offensive on April 24. With the start of the Taliban "Azm" (determination) campaign, insecurity rapidly increased as the Taliban turned to more conventional tactics in an effort to control territory.

Their violent campaign is being aided by thousands of Central Asian fighters, most of whom fled into Afghanistan last year after the Pakistani military targeted their stronghold in the northwestern North Waziristan tribal district along Afghanistan's southeastern border.

Taliban violence has strained the Afghan forces, who are mostly fighting on their own after NATO ended its combat operations in the country. "The New York Times" recently reported that Afghan casualties are increasing at an alarming rate. During the first quarter of 2015, some 1,800 Afghan forces were killed and twice as many wounded -- a casualty rate 65 percent higher compared with the same period last year.

In what is being viewed as a last-ditch diplomatic effort to salvage relations with Ghani, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his military chief visited Kabul on May 12.

"We strongly condemn the increase in violence and the Operation Azm offensive by the Afghan Taliban," Sharif told reporters in an apparent bid to address Ghani's demands. "The continuation of such attacks and the offensive will be construed as terrorist acts, and we condemn such attacks in the strongest terms," he added.

Sharif even promised that Taliban "sanctuaries, when found, will be eliminated by direct action, and will be monitored by the existing mechanism" and "any effort by any militant or group to destabilize Afghanistan will be dealt with severely and such elements will be outlawed and hunted down."

In another sign of good will last week, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate facilitated talks between some Afghan Taliban leaders and Afghanistan's newly nominated defense minister, Masoum Stanikzai, in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi. Stanikzai was previously head of the Afghan Peace Council secretariat and was Kabul's point man for peace talks.

Rubin, however, said the talks failed to impress Kabul because two of the three Taliban leaders who participated, Mullah Abdul Jalil and Mullah Abdul Razaq, have not held power within the Taliban organization for years.

"The third, Mullah Hasan Rahmani, is not part of the top decision-making team, so they could not produce any results," he said. "It might have been a useful exchange of ideas, but it is unlikely to be a step toward genuine negotiations."

A "nonofficial meeting" between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in the Qatari capital of Doha at the beginning of May merely ended in an agreement that the two sides will hold similar summits in future.

This week, Pakistani media reported that Islamabad has issued a "stern warning" to Afghan Taliban leaders to immediately cease fighting in Afghanistan or face consequences.

But Rubin, who has formerly advised Washington on Afghanistan policy, says so far Kabul does not see any action.

"Yes, the Pakistan military and ISI delivered what I understand was a strong message urging the Taliban to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government and stop fighting," he said. "But there have been no consequences for those who refused."

For years Islamabad denied any Afghan Taliban presence on its soil after remnants of the hard-line regime set up its headquarters in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan Province.

Observers say that in recent years Pakistan has arrested some Taliban leaders whenever they crossed its red lines such as establishing contact with Kabul.

"The ISI knows who in the Taliban leadership is blocking efforts to start talks. If they can't or don't want to arrest everyone, they could at least detain those who refused their demand to negotiate," Rubin said.

"But they have not arrested even one person. Compare that to how they treat Baluch separatists or the TTP (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan), and the statements that 'Afghanistan's enemies are their enemies' look like empty words," he said.

Rubin says the letter seems to have no direct relationship to the strong opposition to the recent agreement over an intelligence-sharing agreement between the spy services of the two countries. "The opposition to the Memorandum of Understanding is just one expression of the deep doubt that Afghans feel about any Pakistani pledge of cooperation," he said.

A palace insider says that before sending the letter to Pakistan Ghani consulted key lawmakers in Kabul. He says the briefing helped quell tempers over the intelligence deal and lawmakers scrapped summons for the Afghan spy chief and the national security adviser to explain the deal before parliament.

Rubin foresees little concrete Pakistani action in the near future. "What is astonishing is that it seems that so far they have not done any of the things Ghani asked for except issue statements," he said.