THE history is so long and fraught and the problems so complex that the start of the Ashraf Ghani presidency in Afghanistan cannot immediately be seen as a new beginning in ties between Islamabad and Kabul.
There are though fresh possibilities now that the Hamid Karzai era is over. Mr Karzai in his final speech in office exemplified quite how impossible it had become to hope for major breakthroughs in ties while he was still around: the rancour and vitriol Mr Karzai directed at Pakistan was neither new nor surprising and had thoroughly poisoned all facets of the relationship.
President Ghani, meanwhile, is seen as a pragmatist who is aware that peace and stability in the region will depend on Pak-Afghan relations. Of course, with a power-sharing agreement in place in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen to what extent the Abdullah Abdullah camp — especially the hawks in the erstwhile Northern Alliance — impacts foreign policy and the national security choices of Afghanistan.
Despite Pakistan’s reaching out several years ago, the remnants of the Northern Alliance, so influential in Kabul during the Karzai era, never really warmed to the idea. Much then could depend on how domestic politics between the Ghani and Abdullah camps shape Afghan policy towards Pakistan.
The immediate priority for both the Pakistani and Afghan sides should be to reduce the acute tensions along the border between eastern Afghanistan and Fata. Where security forces on both sides have targeted sites across the border, there needs to be an immediate cessation. But the problem is really one of sanctuaries and cross-border attacks — so long as militants on both sides of the border are present and active, the risk of an escalation between Pakistani and Afghan security forces remains very real.
Eventually, the two countries, if they are ever to deal with the problem on a long-term basis, will need to move towards better border management in a way that makes it less porous but still accessible for legitimate people traffic. Yet, that surely does not mean putting everything else on hold, especially intelligence cooperation and re-energising military-to-military contacts across the border to make clashes less likely.
From there, there are the truly big issues. Pakistan facilitating an internal Afghan reconciliation between the government and the Afghan Taliban would be at the top of that list and the one measure against which much of Islamabad’s intentions will be judged in Kabul and internationally.
The protracted Afghan election process has added to lost time so a big gesture may be needed to revive the reconciliation process — one that could be provided by Pakistan. If the goals are kept reasonable but clear and both Pakistani and Afghan sides show they understand the past cannot be repeated, there is a possibility for a shared, better future.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2014