By Mansoor Jafar
Pakistan and Afghanistan are perhaps a unique example of two neighboring countries with skeptical bilateral relations, making them both friends and enemies at the same time. The relations appear friendly on the surface but extreme bitterness and mistrust exist beneath the calmness, frustrating all efforts to remove misunderstandings and solve problems.
Both countries suffer from policies that are conflicting at both internal and external levels, thus making them rely more on other countries than each other for solving their mutual problems. Forced to adhere to these policies, they are drifting away from each other and their relations are becoming worse with every passing day.
Although the people in both countries share a strong historical bond of religion, culture and race, the situation has reached a point where mutual mistrust and hatred have burst out of the confines of government and state agencies and spread among the people.
The recent change of government in Pakistan has come as another chance for both countries to remove the mistrust and revert to historic warmth and cordiality in their relations. This is why Afghan President Hamid Karzai landed in Islamabad on Monday, probably his last visit to Pakistan. Karzai carried difficult baggage, loaded with heavy expectations, difficult demands and a large entourage.
On his previous visit to Pakistan in February 2012, Karzai’s key demands included asking Pakistan to encourage Taliban leadership to hold peace talks with the Supreme Afghan Peace Council. This demand is yet to be fulfilled despite the fact that the then prime minister of Pakistan agreed to it in his official statement. Karzai reiterated the demand in a recent visit, as part of a scheme to help Kabul control the 12-year Taliban-led insurgency against his regime.
Both governments and the media have failed to improve relations despite ongoing efforts and global patronage. The proposed conference of scholars from both countries has always been regarded as vital in determining the religious nature of the war going on in the region. But this conference has yet to take place despite efforts from both sides.
One important demand from Kabul to Pakistan has been calls for the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other key prisoners in Pakistan who are not held on terrorism related charges. In a reported assessment of the Islamabad embassy in Kabul, President Karzai wanted access to Mullah Baradar so badly that he would have invited him to fly back with him in the presidential plane.
Unluckily, President Hamid Karzai achieved little success in his 19 previous visits to Pakistan, and attaching high hopes to the recent visit proved to be yet another mistake, especially at a time when he has only eight months left in office and Washington is preparing to leave Afghanistan after an unsuccessful 12-year military campaign.
Mr. Karzai's desire for direct dialogue with the Taliban, his pledge to gain access to Baradar and the opportunity to use him as a consensus interlocutor to negotiate a peace settlement in the country on his own terms remained unfulfilled.
Afghan government peace negotiators accompanying Karzai also called for the release of Baradar, the most senior Taliban figure detained in Pakistan. But no mention was made about prisoner releases in the short statements made by Sharif and Karzai. Furthermore, questions were not allowed in the news conference.
President Karzai decided to visit Pakistan in the light of the assessment in Kabul, that the Doha process has been hit badly and has little chance of revival, as the scope for other initiatives has increased. This is not an off-the-mark view, except that Washington is still working quietly with Islamabad to “re-package” Doha. One idea that is being debated is that an intra-Afghan dialogue should flow out of the discussions between the Taliban and Washington which may have Afghan High Peace Council representation with other groups that are not part of the Council, including opposition members in the Afghan parliament.
During his visit on Monday, Karzai did not make any headway on proposals to relocate the Taliban office which was shut in Doha.
Karzai’s aforementioned wish list did not materialize because it runs counter to the existing initiatives that Islamabad is involved in along with Washington. Moreover, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not convinced about the implications of Karzai's demands and did not consider the time ripe for a bilateral track of this nature.
Another reason which led to the rejection of President Karzai’s wish list is related to his own habit of blowing hot and cold. Moreover, Islamabad remains fearful that the visiting president might present its facilitation of direct dialogue with the Taliban as evidence of Pakistan controlling Taliban strings in every aspect.
Likewise, Hamid Karzai failed to use his traditional ploy of demonizing the Pakistan army during this visit due to the well-thought-out strategy of both military and political leadership. The Defense Committee of the Cabinet approved the creation of the National Security Council in one of its meetings a couple of days ago. The meeting dwelled comprehensively on the subject of Afghanistan and the prime minister was able to get a fairly all-round and realistic view of the perils and potential of Karzai’s visit. This timely homework brought the political and military leadership together on one page which frustrated the visiting president’s cherished objective of “divide and rule” to large extent.
Despite Hamid Karzai’s less than successful visit to Pakistan, diplomatic circles are still optimistic about a possible thaw in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, and are of the view that the coldness in relations is temporary and could change in the near future. (Al Arabiya).
Mansoor Jafar is editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @mansoorjafar