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Pakistani Army Chief’s Afghanistan Challenge

Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa attends the change of command ceremony in Rawalpindi near Islamabad on November 29, 2016.
Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa attends the change of command ceremony in Rawalpindi near Islamabad on November 29, 2016.

In his new year message to the Afghan leadership, Pakistan’s new army chief has pledged to work for peace with the neighboring country.

But the December 31 promise by General Qamar Javed Bajwa, one of the most powerful figures in Pakistan, is likely to prove a tall order because of the deep mistrust and botched cooperation efforts between his predecessor and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

According to the Inter-Services Public Relations, the Pakistani military’s media wing, Bajwa spoke with Ghani by telephone. Along with Army chief General Qadam Shah Shahim and his Afghan counterpart, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Bajwa vowed to work for peace because “peace in both countries is in the greater interest of the region.”

The Afghan leadership invited Bajwa to visit, and presidential spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri wrote on Twitter that Ghani “welcomed his forward-looking approach.”

But the mood in the Afghan corridors of power appears far from jubilant. Bajwa’s statement has raised no visible hopes for a major breakthrough because similar overtures in recent years failed to assure Afghan leaders of Islamabad’s sincerity about ending its covert support for Afghan insurgents.

Former Pakistani lawmaker Afrasiab Kattak said resetting Islamabad’s relations with Kabul will not be easy because Pakistan must back up its pronouncements with concrete actions.

“It's particularly hard to see a change in Pakistan’s Afghan policy when its security establishment recently switched sides and has teamed up with the Russians in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan."

Khattak was referring to Islamabad’s changing regional posture. For the past few years, Pakistan has appeared keen to join the United States and China in facilitating direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

But it recently joined Russia and China in attempting to craft a new approach toward Afghanistan. The Afghan government expressed concern over a December 27 meeting in Moscow, which was ostensibly aimed at discussing the threats emanating from Afghanistan but did not include representatives from the country.

"Any discussion about the situation in Afghanistan, even if well-intentioned, cannot help in the absence of Afghans," said Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shekib Mostaghni. Last month, Afghan lawmakers and officials expressed worries over growing ties between Russia and the Taliban fighting to topple the Kabul government.

Such maneuvering inevitably complicates a relationship already lacking in trust. Good will between the Afghan president and the previous Pakistani top soldier, General Raheel Sharif, appeared to dissipate after they failed to cultivate any lasting cooperation between their countries.

After assuming office in September 2014, Ghani embarked on an unprecedented tilt toward Pakistan to mend his country’s historically fraught relations with Islamabad.

In November 2014, Ghani visited the Pakistani military headquarters near Islamabad and struck up a friendship with Sharif. In the subsequent months, he embarked on a number of confidence-building measures to show his Pakistani partners that he was serious about reorienting their bilateral relations from “undeclared hostilities” toward cooperation.

He suspended arms shipments from Pakistan’s regional archrival, India, and attempted unprecedented security cooperation with Islamabad. Ghani even attempted counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan’s premiere spy service, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Successive Afghan administrations blame the ISI for supporting the Taliban, particularly its deadly military wing, the Haqqani network.

Ghani’s efforts cost him considerable political capital and provoked a crescendo of domestic criticism, raising doubts among Kabul’s traditional allies such as New Delhi.

Islamabad, however, failed to deliver the Pakistan-based Taliban leaders to join negotiations with the Kabul government or prevent them from launching a large-scale offensive, which eventually enabled the insurgents to control large swathes of Afghan countryside.

The most Kabul got was a strong denunciation of the Taliban offensive. "The continuation of such [Taliban] attacks and the offensive will be construed as terrorist acts, and we condemn such attacks in the strongest terms," Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told reporters in May 2015. He was accompanied by General Sharif in a last ditch effort to salvage relations with Ghani.

In July that year, Islamabad hosted the first round of direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban. But the process was derailed after the Taliban acknowledged that their founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, died in April 2013.

Despite a succession struggle, the Taliban expanded their offensive in Afghanistan, and the desperate Afghan leader closed the window on improving relations with Pakistan.

"We hoped for peace, but in return war is being declared on us from within Pakistani territory," he told journalists in August 2015 after a wave of Taliban attacks killed scores of civilians in Kabul. "In reality, this means declaring hostility and animosity toward a neighboring country."

Over the next year, ties between Islamabad and Kabul continued to deteriorate.

In December, Ghani told a regional conference in India that some states provide sanctuary and tolerate terrorist networks. "As a Taliban figure said recently, if they had no sanctuary in Pakistan they wouldn't last a month," he said.

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, reiterated Islamabad’s stance. “Ghani's statement is regrettable. It shows anxiety in Kabul and is understandable due to the deteriorating law and order,” he said.

With mutual distrust running deep Kabul and Islamabad are still far from resetting their relations. But a visit by Pakistan’s top soldiers might provide an opportunity for top leaders in the two countries to yet again contemplate a fresh start.