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Ghani's Renewed Cooperation With Pakistan Meets Domestic Backlash

Afghan acting Defense Minister Mohammed Masoom Stanekza (L), Interior Minister General Nur ul-Haq Ulumi (C) and the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) Rahmatullah Nabil (R) during a press conference (file photo).
Afghan acting Defense Minister Mohammed Masoom Stanekza (L), Interior Minister General Nur ul-Haq Ulumi (C) and the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) Rahmatullah Nabil (R) during a press conference (file photo).

A day after Afghan and Pakistani leaders agreed to cooperate toward resolving Afghanistan's decades-old war, President Ashraf Ghani is facing a domestic backlash against his efforts to cultivate a cooperative relationship with Pakistan.

Rahmatullah Nabil, Afghanistan's spy chief, resigned on December 10 after writing a fiery Facebook post a day earlier in which he blasted Ghani's visit to Islamabad to participate in a regional conference on Afghanistan.

"At the moment when [Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif was saying at the [Heart Of Asia] conference that the 'enemies of Afghanistan are the enemies of Pakistan,' many of our innocent compatriots were being martyred and beheaded in an airfield in [southern] Kandahar [city], in Khan Nasheen district of [nearby Helmand province], and in the [northeastern provinces] of Takhar and Badakhshan," Nabil wrote, referring to the series of deadly Taliban attacks that killed scores of Afghan civilians on December 9.

A former aid worker, Nabil, 45, rose through the ranks of the Afghan national security bureaucracy that former President Hamid Karzai created after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. He was first appointed head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the formal name of the Afghan spy service, in 2010 after serving as the head of Karzai's special presidential guard for years.

He was succeeded by Asadullah Khalid after two years but was reappointed to the post in 2013. Nabil kept his job even after Afghanistan's national unity government fired many Karzai-era officials after assuming office in September 2014.

The spy chief, however, has developed strong differences with Ghani in recent months. Afghan presidential palace insiders say Nabil’s relationship with the Afghan leader has sharply deteriorated over the past four months since the Taliban overran a major northern city, Kunduz, and grabbed large swaths of rural countryside.

"The red carpet that was laid out before us as a catwalk [in Islamabad] had the same color as that of at least 1,000 liters of blood of our innocent people," Nabil wrote, apparently mocking Ghani's warm welcome in Islamabad, where the country's military and civilian leaders gathered to receive him at an airport.

Nabil's resignation letter was, however, more measured.

"Unfortunately, during recent months, not only was I in disagreement with some policies but some conditions were imposed on me that limited how much I could work," Nabil wrote in his resignation letter posted on his Facebook and Twitter feeds. "All this resulted in mounting pressure on me that eventually turned into your [Ghani's] verbal requests for me to resign."

The criticism appears to be a rerun of Ghani's earlier botched efforts to sell cooperation with Pakistan to the Afghan elites. A crescendo of criticism forced Ghani to roll back and eventually shelf an intelligence-sharing agreement between the NDS and Pakistan's premiere Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Former President Karzai emerged as the leading voice against trusting Islamabad, which many Afghans accuse of being responsible for the Taliban insurgency.

Karzai appears to be yet again poised to assume the same role. While expressing hope that Ghani's visit to Islamabad will strengthen ties between the two neighbors, Karzai questioned his characterization of hundreds of thousands of Pashtun refugees from Pakistan's tribal areas who are have sought shelter in southeastern Afghanistan since June 2014.

In his address to the Heart Of Asia conference on December 9, Ghani said, "Unfortunately, recent events in Pakistan have forced us to host close to 350,000 to 500,000 Pakistani refugees on our soil."

He was referring to the predominantly Wazir tribespeople from North Waziristan who fled into Afghanistan's southeastern Khost and Paktika provinces after Pakistan launched a major operation against the Taliban and allied Al-Qaeda and Central Asian militants in June 2014.

"He [Karzai] strongly rejected Ghani's remarks calling the residents of Waziristan Pakistanis," read a statement issued on Karzai's official Facebook page. "Hamid Karzai added that the residents of Waziristan lost their houses and property because of [Pakistani] bombing and military operations, which prompted them to cross over to this [Afghan] side of the Durand Line. They have in fact moved from one home to another [with their homeland]."

Karzai has rejected the Durand Line as an international border. The 2,500-kilometer demarcation, established between an Afghan king and British India in the 19th century, is currently the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kabul, however, has never officially recognized it as an international border because it bisects the nearly 50 million Pashtuns into the two countries.

Some 35 million Pashtuns live to the east of the Durand Line in Pakistan and make up the second-largest ethnic group in the country, while another 15 million Pashtuns to the west of the boundary in Afghanistan are its largest ethnic group.

"Former Present Hamid Karzai sees the Durand Line as being imposed on Afghanistan by imperial Britain, and this is why Afghans have never recognized it," the statement said.

The issue has haunted bilateral relations between the two neighbors since Pakistan's creation in 1947. Karzai’s statement is likely to complicate Ghani's nascent efforts toward a rapprochement with Islamabad.