Afghan policy change?


FIRST, the good news. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif`s Kabul visit with army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and DG ISI Gen Rizwan Akhtar in tow, and his emphatic, unprecedented denunciation of violence by the Afghan Taliban is the clearest sign yet that the Pakistani state is edging towards a far-reaching change in its Afghanistan policy. The symbolism in particular was striking.

The prime minister spoke alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the present-day leader of the governance structure that inherited power from the Afghan Taliban in 2001, and criticised what has long been considered by the security establishment here as a loyal ally of the Pakistani state the Afghan Taliban. If words and symbolism alone do not make policy, there is at least a genuine sense now that Pakistan`s consistent, years-long articulation of wanting to turn the page on Afghanistan may have some substance to it. Consider also that Gen Sharif separately announced via the ISPR the resumption of a road-building project Torkham to Jalalabad. This underscores Pakistan is also looking to Afghanistan as a trading partner and not viewing it simply as a security conundrum.

Now, the perhaps not-so-good news: it will take a lot for the change in attitude to be replicated by a change in posture and policy on both sides. Both the Pakistanis and Afghans have immediate and medium-term demands of each other. For Pakistan, the issues of anti-Pakistan militants finding sanctuary along the Pak-Afghan frontier and better border management remain urgent priorities.

The security establishment here appears to believe that securing Fata and thwarting major terrorist attacks inside the country can only be assured if the banned TTP is denied space and resources everywhere. The ability for some of the T TP leadership and its cadres to cross the Pak-Afghan border with relative ease and find sanctuary in Afghanistan therefore continues to be a key concern of the army.

On the Afghan side, the immediate concerns are to tamp down the massive so-called spring offensive of the Afghan Taliban and to bring the latter to the negotiating table as quickly as possible. The Afghan difficulty with Pakistan lies in the extent to which Pakistan believes, or claims, it can help address Afghan concerns and vice versa.

Past experience suggests otherwise. But then past experience has not had a civilian and military leadership on the Pakistani side and a president on the Afghan side who are willing to engage with each other to this extent.

Published in Dawn