BACKGROUND: Bitter adversaries over the last several decades, Pakistan and Afghanistan are poised to work together to tackle terrorism. Under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed last month, Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s intelligence agencies – the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the National Directorate of Security (NDS), respectively – will share intelligence, cooperate on counter-terrorism operations and conduct joint investigations of terrorism suspects. According to reports, ISI would also equip the NDS and train its personnel.
This is a landmark pact given the hostile relations between the two countries, which was mostly due to mutual suspicion between their intelligence agencies, especially in the context of the role that ISI played in the birth and nurturing of the Taliban. While Afghanistan’s former President Hamid Karzai openly displayed his animosity towards Pakistan and did not hesitate to blame the ISI for attacks in Afghanistan, his successor, Ashraf Ghani, has adopted the opposite strategy.
Since assuming the presidency in September last year, Ghani has made several overtures to Pakistan. He made it the destination of his second state visit, and even ignored protocol to meet the army chief Raheel Sharif at the military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Clearly, Ghani recognizes the importance of wooing the military in Pakistan. The success of the Afghan peace process hinges on the Pakistani military and the ISI being brought on board. Pakistan and Afghanistan are said to be cooperating in “ways not known before.” Soon after the December 16 massacre in a Peshawar school, troops from both sides conducted coordinated operations along the border.
Ghani has bent over backwards to address Pakistan’s concerns regarding Indian influence in Afghanistan. India seems to have been relegated to the outer circles of Ghani’s foreign policy radar. He visited Delhi seven months after he became president; in the same period he visited Pakistan twice and importantly, he suspended a request for Indian weapons. In a major policy shift, Afghanistan under Ghani is also turning to Pakistan for military training. Unlike the Karzai years, when Afghan soldiers headed to India for training, six Afghan army cadets were sent early this year for training at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in Abbottabad. At the PMA’s recent passing out parade, the chief guest was Afghanistan’s army chief of staff General Sher Muhammad Karimi. The pact on ISI-NDS collaboration on countering terrorism will give depth to this bilateral bonding.
IMPLICATIONS: The two sides have different motivations for signing this deal. Pakistan hopes that Afghanistan will shut down Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bases on its soil. But more importantly, Pakistan’s expectation of making gains vis-à-vis India is driving its interest in the pact. It hopes to acquire “strategic depth” – a long-standing goal of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan – by using this deal to enhance its own influence in Kabul. Pakistan is believed to have made its support for the peace process conditional upon Afghanistan’s refusal to allow India’s pursuit of any “security-related work” there. Thus, if the ISI-NDS deal moves forward, Pakistan’s presence in Afghanistan will grow exponentially at India’s expense.
The decision on the ISI-NDS pact was taken by Ghani, not the Afghan government. Reconciliation is a top priority for the Afghan president. Realizing that the peace process will be a non-starter without the Taliban on board and recognizing that he will need the ISI to get the Taliban leaders to the negotiation table, he has taken the gamble of shaking hands with Pakistan. Indeed, it was with these considerations in mind that he roped in China, a close ally of Pakistan’s, to broker the peace process, no doubt hoping that China will push Pakistan to cooperate with the peace process.
The ISI-NDS deal is under fire in Afghanistan. Anti-Taliban Pashtuns and ethnic minorities such as the Tajiks are furious with Ghani’s decision to collaborate with the ISI, which they see as the cause of much of their woes over the past two decades at least. Some Afghan parliamentarians are calling for a nullification of the pact, objecting to some of the deal’s provisions as well as the manner in which Ghani clinched it. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah, was reportedly not informed about the deal until after it was inked and NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil was kept out of at least one crucial meeting between Ghani and the ISI chief, Rizwan Akhtar.
A groundswell of anger is growing and it could snowball into a major problem for Ghani. Afghanistan is already reviewing the pact. Much trouble lies ahead should he go ahead with the agreement. The pact has ruffled feathers in the neighborhood as well. Afghanistan’s neighbors are wary of Pakistan and the Taliban’s rising profile in Kabul, and could add fuel to the fire.
Adding to Ghani’s woes is the fact that Pakistan has done little to convince Afghans of its commitment to peace in Afghanistan. Not only has it so far failed to deliver any of the Taliban leaders to the negotiation table, but the ISI has also not reined in the group. Violent Taliban attacks have surged over the last couple of months as the insurgents have embarked on a “spring offensive.”
Ghani appears to have begun backtracking. He took to some tough rhetoric against Pakistan by accusing it of waging an “undeclared war.” In a letter issued to the media at an international conference in Doha, Ghani said that the Taliban is carrying out “massive terrorist attacks” in Afghanistan. “The public is asking whether there has been any return from President Ghani’s efforts to secure enduring peace and cooperation with Pakistan,” he pointed out in the statement.
CONCLUSIONS: Supporters of the ISI-NDS pact hail it as an important step towards ending the mistrust that has traditionally defined relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is seen as an attempt at resetting relations between Islamabad and Kabul.
But what are the chances of success for the ISI-NDS pact? If sustainable peace is its main goal, this seems rather remote. Whether or not it succeeds in bringing peace, it is likely to enhance Pakistan’s influence in Kabul especially if the ISI uses the pact’s “intelligence sharing” provision to effectively infiltrate the Afghan intelligence services. The reset in relations has been rather one-sided, with Afghanistan making all the concessions and only Pakistan making gains; so far the verdict on the pact is that it has given Islamabad the advantage. If the pact does not end the war and ends up only enhancing Pakistan’s clout in Afghanistan, it will have serious political consequences for the Afghan president.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Scott Sutherland