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Peace Between Kabul And Islamabad Is Needed Soon

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) shaking hands with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on May 12.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) shaking hands with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on May 12.

After decades of hostilities resulting in wars, political instability, and mutual suspicion, Pakistan and Afghanistan are making an unprecedented attempt to mend their fraught relations.

Kabul blames Islamabad for propping instability in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban, while Islamabad claims Kabul backs Baluch separatists and some Pakistani Islamist radicals with help from its archrival India.

For years, Pakistan's security establishment has maintained its Afghan policy is dictated by the deep-rooted hostilities Afghans have held toward Pakistan since 1947. Their fears emanate from perceptions that Afghanistan holds few well-wishers of Pakistan and a stable Kabul will collude with New Delhi to encircle Islamabad.

Pakistan also fears its geostrategic mobility to penetrate Central Asia and offset India's alleged hegemonic designs depends on controlling Kabul -- a policy dubbed the "strategic depth" since the 1970s.

Pakistan's paranoia has run deep among the military top brass since Afghan President Sardar Mohammad Daud failed to muster support for his nationalist movement. He was an ardent champion of Afghan irredentist claims over territories east of the Durand Line. Kabul has never officially recognized the 2,500-kilometer border, demarcated in 1893, that bisects some 50 million Pashtuns into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many Afghan nationalists want to claim these lost territories. But Pakistan and other countries accept the Durand Line as an international border.

For cross-border Pashtun communities that demand a permanent solution, the Durand Line remains an issue. Leaders in both countries agree in private that the British demarcation must be kept and both sides should strive toward making it an open border. But the governments remain dismissive about relinquishing the demesne, boiling it down to irredentism, and thus surrendering it is non-negotiable. Afghans believe it is Pakistan's main motivation for interfering in Afghan affairs.

People-to-people relations are even worse. In Pakistan, particularly in its eastern, prosperous Punjab heartland, the general view is that Afghans are a primitive people who have known only war and can never be conquered, borrowing the perennial term "graveyard of empires" to stereotype the rugged terrain as a cursed land. They remain oblivious to Islamabad's role in Afghan instability.

Afghans see Pakistan as a relic of the British raj and an artificial state doomed to fail. Precisely for these reasons, public opinion in Afghanistan has hit nadir—for Islamabad has alienated ordinary Afghans over the years by adopting colonial tactics.

Despite recent goodwill, the two sides have failed to reach a settlement on key issues, which makes it difficult to build a culture of trust. Chief among them is the dearth of realization in Islamabad that since 2001 the geopolitical landscape in Afghanistan has drastically changed.

Previous Afghan leaders demanded that peace talks must be held directly with the armed opposition. President Ashraf Ghani has said Afghanistan must solve its issues with Pakistan to pave the way for any enduring settlement with Afghan insurgents.

He has argued that Pakistan and Afghanistan are in a state of "undeclared hostilities" due to their provision of sanctuary to insurgents. Ghani aimed to foster a relationship of lasting peace and regional cooperation.

He outlined three specific goals: First, the Taliban will never regain power; second, Kabul will never cease sovereignty; and third, Islamabad will never control Kabul.

Ghani has faced stern domestic criticism for his efforts. His latest detractor is former President Hamid Karzai, who has angrily come out against agreeing on intelligence cooperation with Pakistan.

Karzai went so far as to declare it "treason" and compared it with the Treaty of Gandamak and the Durand Line, when Afghanistan lost control over foreign relations and territory to the British in the late 19th century. Overall, the reaction to cooperation between Pakistani and Afghan spy services has been overblown to promote narrow political interests.

Amid mounting pressure, Ghani finds himself isolated at home. The Afghan political elite are not convinced that Pakistan's other destructive policies will automatically fall in line with intelligence cooperation. They also question why Pakistan would behave any differently now.

The new developments give Islamabad impetus to dumb down its response. Pakistani rulers remain uncertain whether the Afghan president has gained enough support within the Afghan elite despite their outcry to end violence.

Islamabad's military, civilian, and intelligence leadership have acknowledged Ghani's overtures. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief General Raheel Sharif seem to be onboard to deliver some of the promises made to Kabul.

Pakistan's powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, however, is divided, and deems any concessions to Afghanistan would render its past three decades a waste. The repercussions of abandoning militants in favor of a cold Afghan public will be too hard a sell within its ranks, according to seasoned Pakistan watchers.

Pakistan's willingness to give up insurgents also hinges on a settlement with India over Kashmir. Its fears of Indian influence in Kashmir and Afghanistan run deep in the military psyche. Critics are divided about reaching out to Pakistan at a time when the Taliban's spring offensive has spilled into previously peaceful areas.

For Pakistan to be perceived as other than the seedbed of terror, critics say, it must follow the policy of "zero problems with the neighbors" and abandon its obsession to control Afghanistan for its own socio-economic and security sake.

Efforts must now be made to foster cultural exchange programs. The hostilities between Afghans and Pakistanis are rudimentary, owing aggressiveness to decades of misunderstandings that will not disappear overnight. But the greater risk is to allow the region to remain an extremist hideout.

Ghani and Sharif's warming ties will soon be put to the test. Pakistan must respond sooner to popular sentiments in favor of peace.

Washington, too, is adamant to close its Afghan chapter. As a result, Ghani and Sharif must find an alternative in the absence of vital U.S. and NATO support.

Leaders in Islamabad and Kabul agree, at least publically, that the time for mutual cooperation has arrived. The diplomatic semantics have improved, but they must do more to overcome opposition to better relations for any lasting peace to prevail.

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