Army Chief’s trip to Kabul marks the first high-profile military visit from Islamabad since the formation of unity government in Afghanistan. General Raheel Shareef was the third top Pakistani leader to visit Afghanistan in less than two months. Earlier, President Mamnoon Hussain had represented Pakistan in the inaugural ceremony of President Ashraf Ghani. Later, Adviser to Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Mr Sartaj Aziz visited Kabul and invited President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to visit Islamabad. President Ghani is likely to visit Pakistan this month. These visits are a part of Pakistan’s continuous engagement with Afghanistan at various levels.

When Sartaj Aziz visited Afghanistan, a vision for Pakistan-Afghanistan relations was discussed. It comprised of economic cooperation, people to people contact and enhancing political engagements as well as interactions between security officials of the two countries. Pakistan had also presented a proposal to Afghanistan on how to better manage the international border between the two countries. Vision incorporated security contours as well. Afghanistan has also indicated its readiness to pursue negotiations on these proposals. For both countries, time is now ripe to take a fresh look at their bilateral relations. General Raheel has, once again conveyed that Pakistan wants to “open a new chapter” in relations with Afghanistan.

During his visit, General Raheel held separate talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah. He discussed a host of issues with new Afghan leadership, including the post-2014 scenario. Reportedly, there is a ‘visible change’ in Afghanistan’s attitude towards Pakistan following the formation of the new unity government and “there is a huge basis for being positive”. Now, Pakistan has offered a “new partnership agreement” to Afghanistan during Army Chief’s visit.

Understanding well that Afghan National Security Forces (AFNS) have institutional as well as capacity issues, Pakistan has since long been offering help to overcome this shortfall. An earlier offer of US dollar 20 million remained untapped by the Afghan side; now a fresh proposal was floated by the Army Chief. He offered ‘full range’ of training courses and facilities in Pakistan’s training institutions to Afghan security forces. Specific offer included capacity enhancement of an infantry brigade, including provision of equipment. General Raheel was briefed by Afghan military officials about the latest security situation in Afghanistan, including the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces. Army Chief raised the issue of terrorist sanctuaries of the TTP in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. The Afghan Defence Minister Bismillah Muhammadi, while referring to a proposal for joint military exercises, said a decision is likely to be taken soon.

The Army Chief reiterated that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan was in Pakistan’s best interest and the only way to ensure regional security was to treat terrorism ‘as our common enemy’. He expressed the hope that the election of the new government in Afghanistan would prove to be a historic opportunity to transform Pak-Afghan relations into a ‘warm and mutually beneficial’ relationship. President Ashraf Ghani told the army chief that good relations with Pakistan are in line with Afghanistan’s strategic interested: “Pakistan and Afghanistan should sincerely and jointly act against the common enemy and cooperate for the establishment of peace and stability in both countries and bilateral economic cooperation….Both countries should strengthen [interactions] at the government-to-government level and also between the institutions”.

Timed with Army Chief’s visit to Afghanistan, the US Department of Defence submitted a report to the Congress titled ‘Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan”, it carried critical comments on Pakistan’s alleged use of “proxy forces to hedge against the loss of influence in Afghanistan and to counter India’s superior military”. The report accuses Pakistan of using militant proxies to achieve its foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and India. It blames Pakistan of using militants who launch attacks: “Taliban attacks in Afghanistan launched from sanctuaries in Pakistan remain a serious problem. These sanctuaries exist primarily in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan…and Indian-focused militants continue to operate from Pakistan territory to the detriment of Afghan and regional stability…These relationships run counter to Pakistan’s public commitment to support Afghan-led reconciliation”. America having failed on multiple counts to bring sustainable peace to Afghanistan feels it convenient to scapegoat Pakistan. This report is yet another such example.

Sartaj Aziz has done well by summoning the US Ambassador and lodging a strong protest over reports of unsubstantiated allegations against Pakistan. The US is seeing terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan but is unable to spot sanctuaries under its nose from where anti-Pakistan activities are planned and executed. India is involved in terrorist activities, even at the tactical level— especially in Balochistan. That the primary function of Indian consulates from across the Pak-Afghan border is to plan and sponsor terrorist acts in Pakistan; the US never talks about this. Despite seeking, needing and enjoying Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan, the US think tanks and policy making entities continue with stereotypes and dated comments about Pakistan. Certainly, such things are not helpful in the overall context.

Pakistani military launched the all-out offensive ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb’ against local and foreign militants in the North Waziristan region in June; which has also been a long-running demand from Washington and its allied forces in Afghanistan. The operation has successfully eliminated terrorist hideouts and is directed against all militants. Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, a senior commander for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan has said that Pakistan’s ongoing military operation in North Waziristan has helped disrupt the Haqqani network’s ability to launch attacks on Afghan territory. When operation Zarb-e-Azb began, the Afghans and the Americans were asked to take corresponding actions on other side of the border against the terrorists, who may flee. It is unfortunate that Pakistan did not receive requisite cooperation. In this background, these baseless allegations essentially sound hollow.

Pakistan pursues a policy of non interference and neutrality in Afghanistan, and believes that it is for Afghans to decide how they want to proceed on reconciliation and other matters. Pakistan’s primary concern is that Afghan soil should not be used against Pakistan. Army chief has assured the Afghan leadership that: “We are ready to work with the new Afghan government. The two neighbours can bury the past and enter into a new partnership agreement.”

Pakistan keenly looks forward to the upcoming visit by President Ashraf Ghani and hopes for a fresh beginning between the two countries. Efficient border management could be a good start, as most of the events leading to mistrust have their roots in unregulated and uncontrolled movement across Paki-Afghan international border.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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