Marvin Weinbaum, formerly an analyst on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the U.S. State Department and presently at the Middle East Institute in Washington, talks about the fierce opposition Afghan President Ashraf Ghani faces in Afghanistan after the unprecedented agreement on intelligence-sharing between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), which aims to bolster the fight against insurgents in the region. However, it remains to be seen what an effect such an accord will have on the neighboring countries and the South Central Asian region.
RFE/RL: How much of a surprise was this deal struck between the ISI and the NDS? Why has it caused such an uproar in Afghanistan?
Marvin Weinbaum: It's surprising to many because a main obstacle to any kind of rapprochement between Afghanistan and Pakistan has always been assumed to be the intelligence services in both countries. So the possibility that an accord has been reached for them to work together is naturally difficult for many people to imagine.
It appears that the push for an agreement on the Afghan side has apparently come not from its National Directorate of Security (NDS) but from President Ghani, and very likely Hanif Atmar, his security adviser. The head of the NDS reportedly opposed the initiative. But for Ghani, cooperation between the intelligence services is no doubt seen as essential either to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table or militarily defeating the insurgents.
RFE/RL: We haven't seen the sort of quid pro quo that Ghani was perhaps looking for when he opened this proverbial window to Pakistan by visiting the country in November and trying to reset Afghanistan's historically fraught relations with Pakistan. Do you agree with that description of the relations, or has there been some progress?
Weinbaum: That Pakistan has not delivered is certainly the perception on the Afghan side. They fail to see the reciprocity that would demonstrate that Pakistan has in fact changed what is viewed as its traditional approach to Afghanistan -- preferring a country that is unstable and weak so as to make it more amenable to Pakistan's manipulation.
What the Afghans are really looking for is solid evidence that Pakistan is ready to end the sanctuary that Taliban insurgents have enjoyed in Pakistan. Until they see that, I think they are not going to be satisfied.
The Pakistanis, for their part, say that they have disrupted infiltration and, in particular, have dislodged the Haqqani network. They also point to evidence that there is more coordination between the militaries of both countries. But it is hard to make the case while attacks in Kabul and across the country are continuing and even increasing.
RFE/RL: Afghanistan claims that Pakistan has supported Afghan Taliban factions such as Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, while Islamabad has accused Kabul of supporting the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as well as the Baluch separatists. Do you think the two intelligence services, and the two governments, can build enough trust to do a barter here and agree on a common policy to refrain from supporting any kind of violent actors in the near future?
Weinbaum: Certainly trust is badly lacking. The publics in both countries have long been taught to blame the other for most of their problems. However, Afghanistan has sought to build trust by breaking with a previous policy that established ties with the TTP. It had been justified by the Hamid Karzai government as payback for Pakistan’s believed support of the Afghan Taliban.
Now, at Ghani’s direction, the Afghan military has diverted troops to attack the TTP forces that have taken refuge from the Pakistan army in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces. As for Balochistan, although some separatists have found safe haven in Afghanistan, it has never been clear how, if at all, Afghan governments have supported the insurgency.
RFE/RL: India has a paradoxical role in all of this as perhaps Afghanistan's closest regional ally historically. But, at the same time, it is Pakistan's main regional rival. How do you see New Delhi in all this? Do you see it as unhappy over a Pakistan-Afghanistan settlement, despite Ghani's recent attempt to convince the Indian leadership that the peace settlement in Afghanistan will not be detrimental to Indian interests in the region?
Weinbaum: The Indians are naturally suspicious of this accord between the two intelligence services. Until now, there had been a certain amount of understanding of Afghanistan’s wanting to get closer to Pakistan. New Delhi appears to have appreciated that Ghani would need some space in the relationship if his country were going to make progress in normalizing ties with Pakistan. Ghani, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, and others reassured the Indians that Afghanistan still depended strongly on India's support. More positively, India saw rapprochement between Afghanistan and Pakistan as conceivably weakening Islamabad’s resistance to its desired direct transit trade with Afghanistan. In any case, the Indians have not forced the Afghan government to choose sides.
But the tentative agreement between the NDS and ISI has raised alarm in New Delhi. There is the deep suspicion that the ISI will use the accord to spread its influence in Afghanistan and undermine the country’s ties with India.
RFE/RL: Do you think the extremists on the two sides – the Pakistani Taliban sheltering in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban hiding in the Pakistan – do you see them as capable of torpedoing any prospects for cooperation, as after all, a cooperative relationship between the two nations is bad for them?
Weinbaum: No doubt, the extremists on both sides will want to do whatever they can to prevent intelligence sharing and other forms of cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For the Afghan Taliban there is reason to fear that it will lead to greater pressure to compromise with the Kabul government or toward shutting down their activities in Pakistan. Among Pakistan's Taliban, cooperation is likely to result in greater coordination of operations intended to defeat them.
RFE/RL: For Ghani's initiative to succeed, what sort of actual developments should we be looking for in the coming weeks and months?
Weinbaum: Should it succeed, it will give momentum to process of reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But I would worry more about Ghani's initiative not succeeding. If this backlash that Ghani faces over an agreement continues to build, he may not have the political strength to stay the course in improving relations with Pakistan. Backing away from an agreement would be a major political setback for him and the unity government. Conceivably, it would give those who are unhappy with the unity government an opportunity to replace it.
But there is no clear plan B for Afghanistan. A military-led government is possible, but it would likely soon break apart into its ethnic and regional elements. The most probable beneficiary of Ghani’s removal would be Hamid Karzai, who is not only bitterly opposed to improved relations with Pakistan but is conceivably angling to return to power. The possibility also exists that the resulting political instability will bring a breakup in central authority and result in civil conflict. Naturally, the Taliban will be the real winners.