By Lauren McNally
Public criticism of Pakistan by Afghan government officials is on the rise following recent violent attacks in Afghanistan, which has the potential to reverse months of progress in stabilizing relations between the two countries.
The aftermath of a series of spectacular attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul on August 7, which left more than 50 people dead and hundreds injured, marks a new low in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On August 10, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for the first time joined other Afghan officials in directly blaming Pakistan for the violence in Kabul, saying, “We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistani territory.” In particular, this year’s August 19 Afghanistan Independence Day celebrations took on an aggressively anti-Pakistan tone among both officials and the Afghan public. The increasingly hostile rhetoric has been matched in recent weeks by Pakistan’s re-initiation of cross-border shelling into Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces, as well as a purported artillery attack by Pakistani security forces on Afghan border police in eastern Kunar province. The purported attack prompted acting Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai to state that Pakistan’s “undeclared war [with Afghanistan] has turned into a declared war.”
While tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan has historically been the norm, relations between the South Asian neighbors have improved significantly since President Ghani was inaugurated in September 2014. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, President Ghani actively sought to improve relations with Pakistan, in particular by seeking Pakistan’s cooperation in intelligence sharing and operations targeting militants in the border regions, in an effort to unite counterterrorism agendas between the two countries. These efforts constituted a significant political risk for Ghani, as mistrust towards Pakistan is a popular sentiment among both Afghan politicians and the general public. It appeared that Ghani’s outreach efforts paid off as Pakistan played a prominent role in orchestrating peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who have used Pakistan as a safe haven since their leadership was ousted from Afghanistan in 2001. However, these talks were suspended in late July, following the retroactive announcement of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and the Taliban’s subsequent and indefinite withdrawal from the talks. The Kabul attacks and ongoing Taliban summer fighting offensive indicate that the Taliban have gravitated to violence in order to maintain their posture at the negotiating table until talks resume. Although Pakistani officials are urging the Afghan government to restart the talks, it is difficult to predict if and when the peace talks will resume, as well as to what degree the Afghan government will be involved.
As the timetable for peace talks remains uncertain, President Ghani appears to be rethinking his short-term domestic political strategy. Blaming Pakistan may be Ghani’s best chance to refute criticism that he turned naively to Pakistan in an attempt to stabilize Afghanistan and regain some political clout, maintaining support for future peace talks. In the long term, Afghanistan’s best chance of engaging the Taliban and stabilizing the region as a whole rests on a working relationship with Pakistan.
Lauren is a Contributor to Parabellum Report.