The Afghan president, , has sent his top spy, diplomat and defence chief to Pakistan for a last-ditch attempt to rescue a relationship which he once promised would hold the key to peace but now threatens his credibility as a leader.
Ghani invested huge amounts of energy and political capital in repairing ties with Pakistan, a neighbour widely reviled in and often blamed for fomenting war because the Taliban find safe haven in its mountainous border regions and major cities.
Although the effort drew heavy criticism, Ghani could point to solid – if slow – progress, including the between the Taliban and the Kabul government, held in a Pakistani resort town.
But this weekend Kabul was devastated by a string of complex attacks that killed over 50 people and injured hundreds in .
Afghans were outraged, and in a powerful speech in the aftermath of the bombings, Ghani warned that they would spell the end of his rapprochement if Islamabad did not respond strongly. “We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistani territory,” he , in a televised address that won an unusual amount of praise across the Afghan political spectrum.
“I ask the government and people of to imagine that a terrorist attack just like the one in Kabul ... took place in Islamabad and the groups behind it had sanctuaries in Afghanistan and ran offices and training centres in our big cities. What would have been your reaction?”
Now at stake are not only Afghan hopes of peace, but also Ghani’s own credibility, after months of promising that considerable concessions to a much-resented neighbour were part of a strategic negotiation rather than a naive giveaway.
Ghani had sent officer cadets to train in Pakistan, shared intelligence information and helped hunt down Pakistani insurgents who had taken refuge on Afghan soil, including six involved in .
Afghans say they want the same help chasing down the men behind the weekend attacks, which targeted military and police bases but mostly killed civilians.
Ghani also loosened ties with Pakistan’s great regional rival, , shelving a request for heavy weaponry from the country in February.
“He’s gambled a lot, but with very little to show for it so far, and almost all of his political capital is used up on this side of the border,” said Kate Clark from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, adding that Pakistan would probably struggle to allay Afghan suspicion without taking direct action against insurgents.
Clark said: “They [the Kabul government] have been given reassurances before, and come back with security cooperation agreements before, and little has changed. That may be one of the problems this time. The normal things have been tried with no success.”
Ghani warned Islamabad that the decisions it made in coming weeks would affect bilateral ties for years, after Afghanistan “made all sincere efforts” in pursuit of peace with little return.
The US has also urged the two countries to continue cooperation. “It is in the urgent interest of both countries to eliminate safe havens and to reduce the operational capacity of the Taliban on both sides of the border,” State Department spokesman John Kirby .
Taliban capacity inside Pakistan may offer Ghani the only grim hope for real change. Pakistani officials and military commanders who once nurtured links to the Afghan Taliban now worry about how insecurity is spreading across the border.
Clark said: “As one senior Afghan official said, Afghanistan and Pakistan don’t have an ‘exit strategy’ from each other. It’s not like they can go home. They are neighbours and they have to live with each other.”
At the site of a deadly truck bombing in Kabul on 7 August, two locals put that message in blunter terms, holding up a that read: “Pakistan, if we burn, you burn with us.”