Days after the United States signed a historic initial peace deal with the Taliban, an old rivalry between neighbors Afghanistan and Pakistan is rearing its head.
The focus of the disagreement is the status of the Afghan Taliban. As Pakistani officials gloat over facilitating Washington’s agreement with the Taliban, some Afghan leaders are keen on painting the Islamist movement as Pakistani proxies.
But the Taliban appear keen on projecting themselves as a national liberation movement by highlighting their agreement with the United States as a validation of the movement’s stance that Washington occupied Afghanistan. Its renewed violence, continued status as a secretive militant organization, and deliberate ambiguity over relations with Islamabad is not helping its image or expanding its support base inside Afghanistan.
A war of words between Kabul and Islamabad precedes the intra-Afghan talks set to begin on March 10, according to the U.S.-Taliban deal signed on February 29. It has also highlighted how central resolving the conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan is for establishing peace in Afghanistan through a negotiated solution between the Taliban and Afghan factions and leaders supporting the Islamic Republic or a Western-backed political system.
"Do they [Afghan leaders] prioritize Afghanistan's interests, or do they give their own personal benefits more importance?” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi asked journalists on March 1 in a jab at Kabul.
In a thinly veiled reference to the Afghan government, he warned U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of spoilers.
"We cannot be in denial about this. There were spoilers, there are spoilers," he said. "In Afghanistan and outside. So you will all have to keep a close eye on those spoilers."
On March 3, Qureshi appeared to criticize Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for saying his administration has made no commitment to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
"The U.S.-Taliban agreement says there will be an exchange of prisoners," he said. "President Ghani should ask the U.S. for an explanation of the agreement."
Kabul countered quickly and encouraged Islamabad to move toward good neighborliness. “Pakistan needs to take practical steps toward enhancing bilateral ties in various areas and refrain from making such irresponsible statements regarding the internal affairs of Afghanistan,” read an Afghan Foreign Ministry statement on March 3.
Kabul warned such statements could create an environment of distrust that will prevent the neighbors from developing a bilateral relationship. “Until such statements are avoided, taking effective steps toward consolidating bilateral relations will not be feasible,” the statement said.
Speaking to a gathering in the eastern city of Jalalabad on the same day, Ghani called on the Taliban to sever ties with Pakistan.
“When are you going to abandon Pakistan?” he asked. “If you want to talk to us about prisoners and want to have it as a precondition [before talks with the Afghan government], then we too have prerequisites.”
For nearly a quarter-century, various Afghan leaders and governments have accused Pakistan of bankrolling the Taliban to create a client regime in Kabul. After the demise of the Taliban regime in the face of a U.S.-led military attack in late 2001, Western and Afghan officials blamed Islamabad for covertly supporting the reemergence of the hard-line movement as an insurgency in 2003. They viewed the support as a continuation of Islamabad’s policies since the 1970s, which prioritized support for armed Afghan Islamists to undermine secular Afghan nationalism. Islamabad has long viewed Afghan irredentist claims and Pashtun ethno-nationalism as existential threats.
While senior Pakistani leaders acknowledged housing Taliban leaders, all was not well between the insurgents and Islamabad. Over the years, many senior Taliban figures were killed or arrested in Pakistan. In May 2016, erstwhile Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur was killed in the southwestern province of Balochistan. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the current top Taliban negotiator, was captured in the southern seaport city of Karachi in February 2010. Pakistan released him from detention at America’s request in late 2018.
After assuming power in September 2014, Ghani reached out to Pakistan. He argued that Kabul cannot reconcile with the Taliban until it sorts out relations with Islamabad, which in his view was waging an undeclared war against his country by supporting the Taliban insurgency.
This complicated history now looms large over the Afghan peace process. The disagreement between Islamabad and Kabul comes at a sensitive time for Washington. It has failed to reset historically fraught relations between the two neighbors but appears to recognize that doing so remains important for the fragile Afghan peace process and lasting stability in the region.
“The United States commits to facilitate discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan to work out arrangements to ensure neither country’s security is threatened by actions from the territory of the other side,” a recent joint “declaration” by the United States and Afghanistan noted.
But Islamabad is opposed to such an approach and instead wants Kabul to focus on improving bilateral relations.
“They should talk directly to Pakistan. The U.S. is planning to withdraw and we will always remain neighbors,” Qureshi told Reuters. “If I have an issue with Afghanistan, I will not ask Washington to play a role.”
For now, Washington appears more focused on jumpstarting talks among Afghans. Days before March 10, there is still no clarity whether the Taliban representatives will talk to the representatives of the Islamic Republic.
The entire process is clouded by a controversy over the release of some 6,000 prisoners with the Taliban insisting Kabul release their 5,000 fighters and supporters in exchange for some 1,000 Afghan soldiers and government workers the insurgents are holding. But the Afghan government wants the issue to figure in its talks with the Taliban.
A rapid increase in Taliban attacks after the expiry of a weeklong partial truce this week appears to be Washington’s immediate worry.
"The upsurge in violence in parts of Afghanistan over the last couple of days is unacceptable,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on March 5. “In no uncertain terms, violence must be reduced immediately for the peace process to move forward."
In Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad the U.S. peace envoy, is holding endless meetings with various factions and leaders in and out of government in a possible effort to unite them in talking to the Taliban.
“We must act on all fronts to clear the road of obstacles that slow our progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations,” he tweeted. “I once again call on all Afghans to rise to the occasion, put country first and not to lose this historic opportunity.”