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Afghan Intelligence Deal With Pakistan Sparks Uproar

Pakistani Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif (L) shakes hands with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during a press conference at the Presidential palace in Kabul on May 12.
Pakistani Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif (L) shakes hands with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during a press conference at the Presidential palace in Kabul on May 12.

An unprecedented intelligence deal with neighboring Pakistan has sparked a furor in Afghanistan, where lawmakers and media commentators are accusing the government of selling out to the country's nemesis.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on May 18 to share intelligence and bolster cooperation in their fight against militancy.

Some current and former Afghan officials, as well as ordinary Afghans, are angry at the overture -- a potentially groundbreaking attempt to improve ties with Islamabad -- toward a country many accuse of supporting the Taliban.

"Pakistan is an enemy to Afghanistan and will never develop friendship with us," Fazilhadi Muslimyar, the chairman of the upper house of parliament, said on May 19. "Pakistan has always plotted to destroy Afghanistan and will continue to do so; therefore, how can we afford to send our security forces for training in that country?"

A former head of the NDS, Assadullah Khalid, called the deal dangerous and pointless.

"No Afghan can think that ISI supports us in combating terrorism," Khalid told Afghanistan's TOLOnews on May 18. "ISI will strive to subvert the achievements we have made in the intelligence sector and will destroy them, so I consider this agreement a shameful and unforgivable act."

Another ex-spy chief, Amrullah Saleh, expressed similar alarm via Twitter, warning that Pakistan risked "falling in the trap of deception":

Former President Hamid Karzai, who had a strained relationship with Islamabad throughout his nearly 14 years in power, condemned the deal in a statement on May 20. He called for the nullification of the deal "immediately" and said the agreement undermines national security.

"Afghanistan has long mistrusted and expressed tremendous amounts of hostility towards Pakistan," says Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "So the idea that there is going to be an agreement that would entail tremendous levels of trust and cooperation really seems completely unreasonable and unjustifiable among many Afghans."

Pakistan's powerful ISI is particularly loathed by Afghans. The ISI trained, armed, and funded Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviet Union. It was credited with forming the Taliban. To this day, Afghanistan accuses the ISI of providing safe haven on Pakistani soil to a number of extremist insurgent groups bent on overthrowing the government in Kabul.

Pakistani Army spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa said via Twitter on May 18 that the deal includes "international sharing, complementary and coordinated intelligence operations on respective sides":

But the specifics of the new memorandum have not been released, leading to unconfirmed reports in the Afghan media that the agreement involves the ISI equipping and training Afghan intelligence officers.

The government in Kabul has played down the agreement. NDS spokesman Hasseeb Sediqqi said on May 19 that reports saying the ISI would be training or equipping the NDS were "false."

Sediqqi said similar MoUs had been signed in 2006 and 2009 but "they did not achieve the desired result."

That has failed to stem the tide of criticism toward the government. The Afghan parliament has summoned President Ashraf Ghani's national security adviser and the NDS chief to explain the agreement to lawmakers.

Unconfirmed reports in the Afghan media suggest that NDS Chief Rahmatullah Nabil, a vocal critic of the ISI, has resigned over the agreement.

Social media users have vented their anger on Facebook and Twitter.

The deal comes amid a recent thaw in relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

Ghani, determined to get Islamabad's help in brokering peace talks with the Taliban, has offered a number of major concessions that would have been unthinkable under Karzai, who stepped down in September.

Earlier this year, Ghani agreed to send Afghan military cadets for training in Pakistan. Then, at the request of Islamabad, Ghani ordered Afghan security forces to uproot Pakistani Taliban militants hiding in Afghanistan.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.