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Afghan Leader's Balancing Act In Resetting Pakistan Relations

Ashraf Ghani
Ashraf Ghani

President Ashraf Ghani is attempting a new beginning with neighboring Pakistan in an effort to break free from the geopolitical struggles that have made Afghanistan unstable for decades.

The tricky part of cultivating a new relationship with Pakistan, however, is balancing it with Afghanistan's relations with India, whose decade-old rivalry with Pakistan overshadows Afghan stability.

Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan specialist at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., says that unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani realizes that "bashing Pakistan is not going to work for him."

Weinbaum says Ghani is making an honest effort to reset relations with Pakistan because he recognizes he cannot accomplish his election promises, primarily building peace, without Islamabad's cooperation.

"I am sure he thought this out quite well that he may have to put India at arm's length," he says. "Like everything else he does, it is a carefully calculated effort to get what he needs from Pakistan."

In a highly symbolic move, Ghani shelved an Afghan government request for Indian military assistance last month. Kabul was apparently frustrated with delays and New Delhi's failure to deliver weapons and other assistance.

Instead, during his visit last week, he toured the Pakistani army's headquarters near Islamabad and expressed interest in cooperation on security, including training and border management.

Shashank Joshi, a fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, says Ghani understood that concluding a major military agreement with India early in his administration would have "poisoned the well" with Pakistan.

"He wants to explore how far Pakistan is ready to go in helping him hold a dialogue with the insurgency," Joshi told RFE/RL's Gandhara website.

Pakistan and India have fought three major wars and have engaged in periodic border clashes since the partition of the Subcontinent into the two countries in 1947. They extended their rivalry to Afghanistan during the 1980s by backing opposite sides in that country's civil war.

Karzai's efforts to break free from that cycle didn't succeed because Islamabad failed to help Kabul negotiate peace with the Taliban, which Afghan and Western officials repeatedly claimed enjoyed clandestine support from Pakistan because the country's powerful military used it as a proxy in Afghanistan.

India, on the other hand, has invested more than $2 billion in Afghan reconstruction since 2001 compared with the $500 million pledged by Pakistan.

In a recent interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, Karzai said Pakistan had asked him to roll back relations with India to secure its backing for Afghan peace.

"They asked us not to give a foothold to India in Afghanistan. In reality, they wanted to control our foreign policy toward India," he said. "This was impossible for me because it would have meant conceding our sovereignty to Pakistan."

Joshi says bitter past spats are likely to overshadow Ghani's new initiative.

"We have had Pakistani charm offensives toward Afghanistan, and they just haven't yielded very much because Pakistan's policy toward the [Afghan] insurgency and the future composition of Afghanistan wasn't acceptable," he told Gandhara. "I just haven't seen the fundamental changes in Pakistani policy that would lead me to think that this round of a charm offensive would somehow yield something different."

But Western and Afghan observers say China and the United States are now backing the new reset. In recent months, China appears to have ditched its traditional policy of non-interference in Afghanistan and is seen as pushing Pakistan to abandon its support for the Taliban and broker a reconciliation with Kabul.

Weinbaum, who has observed Afghanistan-Pakistan relations for four decades, says if Pakistan can demonstrate that it does not pose a threat to Afghanistan then Kabul's reasons for relying on India would diminish. "There are things Pakistan can offer that India cannot ― in terms of trade, in terms of training; culturally, there is a great deal they can accomplish," he says.

The presence of some Pakistani Taliban fighters in remote Afghan regions, he says, could serve as an additional incentive for Islamabad to make the reset with Kabul work. "There is a basis here for some mutual understanding on the support of insurgent groups on each side of the border," he says.

However, attacks by Afghan and Pakistani insurgents in the two countries, or inflammatory statements by leaders, could still quickly derail the nascent process.

"It requires a certain amount of forbearance on everybody's part not to jump to conclusions about where things are going to end up but be willing to let this evolve," Weinbaum says.