WHEN Afghanistan pushes, Pakistan pushes back — it is almost an immutable law of relations between the two countries that until days ago seemed to be inching closer to a more stable and productive relationship. But then the attempted assassination of the Afghan intelligence chief last Thursday prompted President Hamid Karzai to suggest the attack had been planned in Pakistan and now the Pakistan Foreign Office has lashed out against Mr Karzai. As with the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, also blamed by the Afghan government on Pakistan, the attempted murder of Asadullah Khalid, the Afghan intelligence chief, will further complicate already complex ties, though this time even closer to the crucial 2014 deadline that all sides have their eyes on. The Pakistani state’s demand for proof that Mr Khalid’s assassination was planned in this country is unlikely to be met by Kabul; that is simply in the nature of such murky and dangerous issues. But perceptions can matter as much, if not more, than the proven facts in such issues.
As an Afghan known to be hostile to Pakistan and sceptical of reconciliation with the Taliban, Mr Khalid has had many enemies in the grey areas of overlaps between the state here and the insurgents in Afghanistan. Few in the Afghan state will be willing to believe Pakistan or its alleged Afghan proxies were not in some way involved in the attempt on Mr Khalid’s life. The fact that he is such a senior official in Afghanistan will only make those suspicions harder to overcome and cause them to linger much longer than otherwise. The timing also could not have been worse for those seeking to stabilise relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Accusations and recriminations aside, the problem for Pakistan policy on Afghanistan is two-fold. One, the recent positive developments between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been discrete events at the highest levels — elsewhere along the operational and intelligence apparatus, there is still little day-to-day contact and much suspicion. Two, for all the talk of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation, the security establishment here continues to hedge its bets and play both sides. Whether that is out of fear or ambition, it is untenable to talk one line and walk another. Clarity is needed; or Pakistan may end up losing the very thing it craves in Afghanistan: influence.