Can Kabul and Islamabad Cooperate Effectively on Counterterrorism?

Soon after Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah formed a unity government in Afghanistan in September 2014, there were signs of rapprochement between Kabul and Islamabad. When President Ghani visited Pakistan in November, he went to the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi and laid a wreath at the monument to the country’s fallen soldiers—an indication that the Kabul government had come to an understanding with the Pakistani army, which controls the country’s Afghan policy.

During the visit the leaders of the two countries pledged to jointly curb terrorism in the region and vowed that neither side would allow its territory to be used against the other. Kabul expected Pakistan to use its influence to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, and Islamabad looked for the Afghan security forces to deny sanctuary to top leaders of the Pakistani Taliban and their fighters, who had taken refuge on the Afghan side of the border.

The Peshawar massacre of more than 100 children by Pakistani Taliban a month later furthered the thaw in relations. The attack was the worst the nation had seen from the Taliban, and it paralyzed the country for days. Calls from every corner of Pakistan insisted that action be taken against the Taliban, whose leader, Mullah Fazlullah, is believed to have ordered the massacre. As Fazlullah is said to be hiding in Afghanistan, the day after the attack Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, along with Chief of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Rizwan Akhtar, flew to Kabul, seeking the assistance of the Afghan authorities. The Pakistani military subsequently issued a statement that Ghani had assured his cooperation.

However, the rapprochement suffered its first setback in April when the Afghan Taliban launched its spring offensive in Afghanistan by carrying out attacks in several provinces. Afghans had expected that Pakistan would have deterred the group from orchestrating such violence. While fighting continued in more than ten provinces in early May, an informal meeting between Taliban representatives and an Afghan government delegation took place in Doha, though no real progress in the peace process was achieved.

With the thaw between Kabul and Islamabad threatened, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, accompanied by Raheel Sharif and Akhtar, again visited Kabul. The prime minister sent a strong message to the Afghan Taliban by announcing that “any effort by any militant or group to destabilize Afghanistan will be dealt with severely, and such elements will be outlawed and hunted down.”

He also directly addressed the Afghan leader: “I assure you, Mr. President, that the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan.” This was a significant departure from the past, as Pakistan has traditionally been accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban. This public rebuke by Sharif not only salvaged the rapprochement, but also helped Ghani save face, as he is under scrutiny for becoming too close to a country that remains distrusted by most Afghans. Ghani’s policy toward Pakistan is a stark departure from that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who considered Pakistan dedicated to keeping Afghanistan weak and the source of all of his country’s difficulties in defeating the Taliban insurgency.

The fight against terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan requires close coordination of the two countries’ main spy agencies and intelligence operations. To achieve this goal, the agencies recently signed a memorandum of understanding to share intelligence and conduct coordinated operations against the Taliban and other regional terrorist groups. According to the agreement, both agencies will identify common enemies and carry out joint operations on either side of the border. In Afghanistan the strongest challenges to this agreement have come from Afghan politicians from a broad spectrum, including Ghani’s own allies, and the mainstream private Afghan media—all of which accuse him of “selling out” to Pakistan. Chief Executive Abdullah has openly expressed his anger that he was not consulted closely on drafting the understanding with Pakistan, and has demanded major revisions. These reactions point to how difficult it is for Ghani to sustain the thaw with Pakistan.

To convince skeptical Afghans that he is not selling his country’s interests short, Ghani reportedly sent a letter to Pakistani leaders in recent weeks warning that the current rapprochement between the two countries will end unless Islamabad clamps down on the Afghan Taliban’s activities and arrests its leaders. The letter gives Pakistan weeks to answer. 

Pakistan can take immediate practical steps regarding the Afghan Taliban, such as setting a specific time frame for its departure from Pakistan if its leaders do not announce a cease-fire and halt their spring offensive. In such a scenario, the Afghan Taliban leaders would feel under pressure to stop hostilities, as they would risk capture by the Afghan authorities if they cross the border. Action by Pakistan would provide breathing room for the Kabul government to mount its own offensive against the Pakistani Taliban allegedly concentrated in northeastern Afghanistan. The Afghan forces are currently deeply engaged in fighting the Afghan Taliban in several provinces and are not now in a position to launch such a sustained offensive against the Pakistan insurgents. The threat of expelling the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan might also put some pressure on the group’s leaders to negotiate seriously with the Kabul government.

As Pakistan and Afghanistan are fighting the same enemy, joint military operations could result from a resetting of their relations. Pakistan could provide air support to the Afghan forces to fight the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in Afghan territory. Any such military cooperation would not only deal a blow to terrorism but would also empower the Kabul government to reduce its dependence on regional warlords and their militias, whose support is crucial to keeping the Taliban at bay in various areas of the country. Many of these warlords have a controversial past and are involved in corruption, extortion, and illegal land grabbing. They also create obstacles to building institutions and improving governance. If the Taliban’s security threat is lessened, the government in Kabul would be less reliant on these individuals and would have more freedom to build a stable, peaceful, and prospering state. Afghanistan is unlikely to achieve these goals, however, without also having overcome its differences with Pakistan.