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Give Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace A Chance

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif.

Since assuming office last September, President Ashraf Ghani has sought to mend Afghanistan's historically fraught relations with Pakistan.

Ghani has invested much political capital into cultivating this friendship, even reaching out directly to Pakistan’s powerful military establishment at a considerable risk to his standings at home.

His efforts are driven by the belief that "undeclared hostilities" between the nations -- namely providing sanctuary or turning a blind eye to insurgents -- must end to make way for lasting peace and regional cooperation.

Since 2001, Kabul has accused Islamabad of sheltering the Afghan Taliban and bankrolling their violent campaign in Afghanistan. Conversely, Islamabad has blamed Afghanistan of helping secular Baluch separatists and the hard-line Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In less than seven months, bilateral security ties have seen a marked upturn. Ghani and the Pakistani civilian and military leadership have acknowledged the need to join forces to eliminate the scourge of extremists who exploit acrimonious ties between Kabul and Islamabad.

The agreement inked between the countries' intelligence agencies this week is an indication of developing ties.

But because of Islamabad’s decades-old interference in Afghan affairs, the sudden change is met with skepticism in Afghanistan. Critics have blasted the agreement, pointing to the many occasions that Pakistan failed to fulfill its promises. They say Pakistan's powerful generals will once again renege if they are unwilling to rein in militant groups.

Afghan critics question the prospects of cooperation with Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). They accuse the ISI of providing sanctuary, funding, and resources to militant groups detrimental to Afghan sovereignty.

This week, social media blasted Ghani for his unreciprocated overtures to Islamabad. The resentment culminated in Afghan news outlets calling Ghani’s peace strategy a serious slipup that might lead to domestic upheaval.

Loyalists of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai have formed an undeclared opposition to talks with Pakistan. They say if Islamabad is not willing to concede its role in employing militants as a tool of foreign policy, Afghanistan must pull out of all negotiations and respond in kind.

Some critics have called the reconciliation process with the Afghan Taliban "fraud diplomacy" because it gives Pakistan cover for backdoor dealings with insurgents and binds Afghanistan to agreements counterproductive to national security.

The attacks against the Afghan Army and the recent instability in northern Afghanistan have further complicated the attempt to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This has spawned allegations that the administration’s lack of a clear-cut security strategy is flaming insecurity nationwide.

But demanding instant results is irrational and short-sighted, especially at this critical juncture. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan will not improve overnight but rather require sustained diplomatic engagement to incentivize peace.

The easing relations with Islamabad haven’t yet borne much fruit. But Islamabad has realized that its own security relies on Afghan stability. The frequent visits by Pakistan’s security chiefs underline their concerns to shift from military control to a peaceful, cooperative environment for long-term geostrategic goals.

Ghani has worked hard to ally Pakistan’s top military officials with the reconciliation process and reaffirm Afghanistan's support in counterterrorism operations against the TTP. In return, Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, and ISI Chief Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar have visited Kabul multiple times to strengthen security ties.

In an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called the Afghan Taliban "terrorists" during his Kabul visit this month, marking a shift in Islamabad's views. Previously, Afghan insurgents were seen as the "good Taliban."

Ghani's strategy to end hostile relations with Islamabad fits into his vision for an "Asian Roundabout." With economic interdependence at its core, he first wants to secure peace with Afghanistan's neighbors, paving the way for an economic corridor of Pakistan, India, China, Iran, and other regional states -- like the proverbial silk route.

Such efforts are not novel, but most previous negotiations were carried out solely between civilian leaders.

From day one, Ghani has sought to involve Pakistan's military in negotiations because of its considerable sway over insurgents.

The Afghan leader also sees his country increasingly dependent on Pakistan in the wake of the declining U.S. and NATO footprint. Souring relations with Pakistan come at a much higher cost at a time when other militant groups such as Islamic State and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are joining in the fight.

Ghani wants to unite regional countries in an economic loop making it harder for Pakistan to undermine Afghan interests. The Saudi and Chinese roles are vital for pressuring Pakistan to relinquish its destructive policy. Ghani's trips to Riyadh and his recent alliance with Sunni Arab states in Yemen were meant to secure Saudi backing for peace talks in Doha. Chinese investors and state enterprises have shown interest in Afghan minerals. Beijing’s pivot toward Afghanistan could effectively roll back the militancy supported by Pakistan.

Luckily, Ghani's national unity government partner, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, and his political entourage seem onboard with mending relations.

Their government's success rests largely on how effectively the two leaders steer Afghanistan until winter, when insurgents pause their offensive, and then push harder for peace talks.

Ghani understands the repercussions of failed talks. He has delivered stark warnings to Islamabad that if things don't materialize, he will have no choice but to abandon the process. "War has been imposed on Afghanistan," Ghani said of the other options. "We will respond to the imposed war with war."

It is time for Afghans to do away with antagonism toward Pakistan and embrace ties with a neighbor that has the upper hand. The key to ending insurgency isn't less diplomacy and more war but more diplomacy and no war.

Atta Nasib is a political commentator on Afghan affairs. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.