Putting old differences aside, and Pakistan are fighting the same enemy. That seemed to be the message as the leaders of the two countries met in Kabul, pledging to work together to fight terrorism.
“I assure you, Mr President, that the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan,” Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said in a press conference on Tuesday during his first visit to Kabul since the inauguration of as Afghan president.
Sharif came to the Afghan capital after Ghani’s government worked for months to reboot relations with . The visit also followed a recent meeting in Qatar between people connected to the Afghan government and the Taliban political leadership, which raised hopes of restarting peace talks.
Reconciliation with Pakistan has been top of Ghani’s agenda since his inauguration in September. The Afghan president has called for cooperation on intelligence matters and previously hosted Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif (no relation to the prime minister), who was also part of Tuesday’s delegation along with intelligence chief, General Rizwan Akhtar.
Ghani has also sought to soothe Pakistani concerns about Indian influence in Afghanistan. Relegating India to the periphery of his foreign policy, Ghani has sent a group of army cadets to an academy in Pakistan as opposed to , where Afghan soldiers are normally trained, and suspended a request for Indian weapons.
For his part, Sharif vowed on Tuesday to help target militants hiding out in border areas, and to work more closely to fight regional terrorism.
“Any effort by any militant or group to destabilise Afghanistan will be dealt with severely and such elements will be outlawed and hunted down,” Sharif said.
After years of accusing each other of nurturing terrorists to fight across the border, both countries now have relatively new leaders. And the mutually friendly tone sounds sincere, said Scott Smith, director for Afghanistan and central Asia at the United States Institute for Peace.
“The thaw in relations between the two governments is definitely real,” said Smith. “The question is how long it will last.”
Domestically, Ghani’s foreign policy shift has been highly controversial and marks a stark departure from his predecessor, , who tried to strong-arm Pakistan and attempted to engage with the Taliban without consulting Islamabad.
People close to the former president are dismayed by what they see as a servile, one-way relationship, in which Ghani concedes too much without getting anything in return.
In an , Karzai warned Ghani not to bow to Pakistani pressure.
“We want a friendly relationship but not to be under Pakistan’s thumb,” Karzai said.
Karzai’s opinion is one to take seriously. The former president still holds influence and his public tirades might stoke discontent among people already impatient after more than a year of political gridlock.
To convince Afghans that he is not selling the country short, Ghani will need some tactical concessions from Pakistan.
“That’s where things can go wrong,” Smith said. “If he doesn’t get enough soon enough, then he will be vulnerable to his domestic critics.”
The change at the helm in Kabul does seem to have convinced Pakistan to engage in friendlier relations.
Abdul Qadir Baloch, a retired general now serving as the minister for states and frontier regions, said last year’s election of Ghani had finally pushed Pakistan’s leadership to drop support for the Afghan .
“The Taliban should understand that difficult days are ahead for them,” he said. “The pressure is coming and they will not have anyone to look to for help.”
Baloch said the years when Afghan insurgents enjoyed security and sanctuary inside Pakistan were at an end and that both countries were now “on the same grid, on the same wavelength”.
He said: “They are to be killed and arrested wherever they are. This side will kill them, that side will kill them.”
However, with the launch of their annual spring offensive, the Taliban has made recent inroads in several Afghan provinces. And while Pakistani politicians swear to fight the insurgency side by side with their Afghan partners, the country’s military is accused of continuing to foment turmoil across the border.
Since last summer, military bombardments in North Waziristan have pushed more than 300,000 refugees into Afghanistan. Following a Taliban massacre in December at a school in Peshawar, about 70,000 more , according to the. Most have left after harassment from the authorities.
Still, Pakistan’s government claims to have done away with a distinction they have been accused of making for decades between so-called “good Taliban”, who fought against a detested Kabul regime and their western and Indian allies, and the “bad Taliban” fighting for a full-blown sharia state in Pakistan.
Baloch said there was now “no question of good or bad”. “We don’t have any good, and they don’t have any good. We have bad and they have bad. We have understood that now,” he said.