An Afghan policeman stands guard as investigators inspect the wreckage of the district police headquarters in Kabul in March of 2017, the result of a suspected Taliban suicide bomber. Photo: AFP
An Afghan policeman stands guard as investigators inspect the wreckage of the district police headquarters in Kabul in March of 2017, the result of a suspected Taliban suicide bomber. Photo: AFP

The meeting in London on Wednesday between the Pakistani prime minister’s special advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, and the Afghan national security advisor, Hanif Atmar – a meeting which was painstakingly brokered by Britain – was aimed principally at reducing tensions between the countries following a series of major terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

The talks addressed Pakistani allegations regarding sanctuaries for terrorist groups on Afghan soil – a mirror complaint to the longstanding Afghan allegations that Pakistan-based militant groups are targeting Afghanistan. India also makes similar allegations against Pakistan, which Pakistan counters by pointing a finger at “India-backed” militant groups established on Afghan soil.

Clearly, one session in London cannot untangle the Gordian knot. There is a three-way entanglement here and all three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and India – will have to be brought inside the tent, which is easier said than done, because the mutual tensions also stem from unresolved and intractable regional disputes over the disputed Durand Line and the Kashmir problem.

However, the western powers cannot allow Pakistan-Afghan tensions to escalate further as any flashpoint would infinitely complicate matters for the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The appearance of ISIS in Afghanistan lends urgency to efforts to improve Afghan-Pakistan ties, because the stabilization of Afghanistan is impossible without Pakistan’s cooperation. Indeed, the only winners in the current situation are the terrorists themselves, and that can only aggravate the tenuous security situation within Afghanistan.

The limited objective of the London meeting was to reduce Pakistan-Afghan tensions and – specifically – to somehow facilitate a reopening of the border. Islamabad closed that border indefinitely following the terrorist attacks and its closure hurts the Afghan economy and people badly.

By closing the border, Pakistan displayed its high indignation that Kabul is unreceptive to its demands for a crackdown on the militant groups inside Afghanistan. But Pakistan cannot be unaware that Kabul lacks the resources to undertake such a mission on a sustained basis.

Pakistan would hope for more direct involvement by US-led western forces in Afghanistan to eliminate the Afghan sanctuaries for terrorist groups. Indeed, this might be considered an unstated ‘pre-condition’ by Pakistan for the reopening of the Afghan border.

How far the US an NATO can meet Pakistani expectations remains to be seen. At any rate, they give an added dimension to the Trump administration’s forthcoming decision on the level of troop deployment in Afghanistan.

Generally speaking, the climate in US-Pakistan relations has been noticeably improving under the Donald Trump administration. Pakistani comfort levels have risen since two key policymakers in the Trump administration are old “Afghan hands” and familiar faces – Defence Secretary General James Mattis and National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. MacMaster.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Forces Committee in Washington on January 15, Gen. Mattis underscored beyond doubt the importance he attaches to “incentivise Pakistan’s cooperation on issues critical to our national interests and the region’s security, with focus on Pakistan’s need to expel or neutralise externally-focused militant groups that operate within its borders.”

This line of thinking reappeared in the statement by the chief of the US Central Command, General Jospeh Votel, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on March 9. In it he indicated that a new “holistic” policy outlook toward Pakistan is crystallizing in the Pentagon, one aimed at stemming the drift in US-Pakistan relations seen during the final lap of the Obama presidency.

Gen. Votel stressed that Pakistan is a “critical partner” and spoke encouragingly about Pakistan’s efforts to clamp down on terrorist groups. Importantly, he also touched on what Pakistan regards as the “core issue” – namely, its tensions with India. He was critical of India’s policies to “isolate” Pakistan and voiced apprehension that tensions on Pakistan’s eastern border might detract from Islamabad’s efforts to secure its western border with Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, New Delhi appears to be sensitive to these US concerns – which would explain to an extent the incipient signs that a resumption of the stalled India-Pakistan talks may be in the offing. Both New Delhi and Islamabad are lowering their rhetoric and have taken some ‘humanitarian’ steps such as release of prisoners.

Without doubt, the British initiative to mediate between Kabul and Islamabad has happened in full consultation and coordination with the US. At a surprisingly early stage for a new US administration, Trump’s team may have hit the ground running.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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