This week, millions of Afghans and Pakistanis saw a rerun of the scenes that hyped hopes for resetting fraught relations between their neighboring countries.
Reminiscent of the optics nearly three years ago, Pakistan’s powerful military chief met the Afghan president as both sides pledged cooperation.
“Both sides discussed regional security, bilateral relations, the fight against terrorism, trade and transit,” an Afghan presidential statement said after the October 1 meeting between Pakistani General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
A statement by the Pakistani military attempted to showcase the broad range of issues afflicting relations between Kabul and Islamabad, which frequently accuse each other of bankrolling insurgencies and sheltering insurgent leaders from the neighboring country.
“Issues related to long-term peace, cooperation against the shared threats, coordination between respective counter-terrorism campaigns to restrict space for non-state actors, intelligence sharing, trade and commerce, and people-to-people contacts were discussed,” said an October 1 statement by the Pakistani military’s media wing, Inter Services Public Relations.
The thaw in relations between Kabul and Islamabad comes after U.S. President Donald Trump called on Pakistan to cease support for Afghan insurgent groups.
“The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan,” Trump announced in his August 21 speech. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
Former Pakistani lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak, a longtime observer of the often-tumultuous relations between the two countries, sees little room for celebrating a breakthrough yet.
“In view of the bitter past experience, one would like to see positive action before expressing optimism,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “The total exclusion of the Pakistani political government from the high-level delegation [visiting Kabul] hardly inspires optimism. After all, the country's security establishment isn't known for critical thinking.”
Such a prognosis is colored by the last failed attempt to reconcile Islamabad and Kabul. Soon after assuming office in September 2014, Ghani reached out to Pakistan’s powerful military.
In order to reorient relations with Islamabad from what he characterized as a state of “undeclared hostilities” toward cooperation, Ghani befriended Pakistan’s then army chief Raheel Sharif.
Despite domestic opposition, Ghani suspended security cooperation with Pakistan’s regional archrival, India, and instead sent Afghan cadets for training at a Pakistani military academy. His administration even attempted a counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan’s premier spy service, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), which many Afghans blame for supporting the Taliban.
Amid rising Taliban violence, the rapprochement collapsed completely by summer 2015. Following the withdrawal of most NATO troops and the end of major alliance combat operations by the end of 2014, the Taliban made a major comeback by overrunning large swaths of the Afghan countryside while stepping up attacks in Afghan cities.
While Islamabad condemned the Taliban violence, it failed to either commit the Taliban leaders sheltering in its territory to negotiations with Kabul or concede to Afghan demands to go after their hideouts. Mounting attacks across Afghanistan forced Ghani to give up on hopes of reconciling with Pakistan.
“We hoped for peace, but in return, war is being declared on us from within Pakistani territory," he told journalists in August 2015 after devastating Taliban attacks rattled Kabul. "In reality, this means declaring hostility and animosity toward a neighboring country."
The setback prompted Kabul to deepen ties with India while pushing its Western allies to respond to Islamabad’s role in fomenting instability in Afghanistan.
Ghani now appears to be cautious. In an effort to build a national consensus on future relations with Pakistan, Ghani met several senior politicians on October 3.
“We have a history of mistrust with Pakistan. Today, we are waiting to see its declared resolve against terrorism translate into practical steps,” Afghan presidential spokesman Shah Hussain Murtazawi told Radio Free Afghanistan on October 4.
While Islamabad has strongly pushed back against being painted as the sole source of instability in Afghanistan, it has expressed renewed vigor in going after militant groups.
Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi warned that Islamabad was "not prepared to be anyone's scapegoat." But his foreign minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, declared the Afghan Taliban to be a liability for Pakistan.
"It is very easy to say Pakistan is supporting Haqqanis [the Haqqani network, the Taliban’s powerful military wing] and Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba,” he told a think tank audience in New York on September 27. “They are liabilities. I accept that they are liabilities. But give us time to get rid of these liabilities.”
The pledge appears to have opened a window for Pakistan in the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan.
On October 3, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that Washington will try "one more time" to work with Islamabad.
“If our best efforts fail, President Trump is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary," he noted.