A TOP Pakistani official has welcomed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Afghanistan as a positive step towards reconciliation between the two nations.
Speaking at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on Monday, Tariq Fatemi, Special Assistant to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said the MoU was proof that “the distance” between Kabul and Islamabad is slowly being bridged.
Fatemi’s resounding support of the pact is in direct contrast to the suspicions and derision the MoU has garnered on the other side of the Durand Line.
Also read: ISI, Afghan intelligence in landmark deal
Since it was first reported last month, the agreement has earned wide-ranging criticism in Afghanistan. Everyone from former President Hamid Karzai to Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, former jihadi commander and MP, has come out in opposition to the pact.
The initial backlash was exacerbated by reports that the agreement, signed last month, would see the ISI “equip and train” the National Directorate of Security.
Though the presidential palace was quick to negate those reports as untrue, many in Kabul remain wary of any agreement that could be seen as Pakistan exerting influence over Afghan matters.
Among the most vocal critics of the MoU has been Shukria Barakzai, MP from Kabul.
Barakzai, like many Afghans, sees increased cooperation with Pakistan, whom Afghans have long accused of aiding and abetting the armed opposition in the country, as a threat to Afghan sovereignty.
Though she was an ardent supporter of Ashraf Ghani during last year’s presidential polls, Barakzai opposed the agreement from the outset.
Barakzai said the MoU has created a “big distance” between the president and herself.
Barakzai believes Pakistan has not done enough to prove it will work for peace in Afghanistan.
“If Pakistan is truly in support of peace, their actions must speak louder than words.”
Pakistan’s intentions for peace were again called into question when pictures of Habib-ur-Rahman, son of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Afghanistan’s second largest armed opposition movement, surfaced online earlier this week.
Many in the nation’s small, but vocal social media scene pointed to the Pakistani police surrounding the younger Hekmatyar as further proof of the nation’s ongoing double game vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Barakzai, who served as the head of the Afghan parliament’s defence committee, said she has seen too much evidence that the Inter-Services Intelligence agency has been behind “some of the biggest attacks” in the country over the last 13 years to believe Islamabad is capable of working in good faith with the NDS.
“They’ve been behind so many of the deaths of our NDS and now they want to work alongside them, how?”
In particular, Barakzai fears that internal power struggles within Pakistan itself will only complicate any steps towards peace between the two nations.
“Pakistan is a military-run state,” Barakzai said in reference to constant reports of a push-and-pull between the Pakistani political establishment in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where the ISI is based.
The situation is further complicated, said Barakzai, by the lack of a neutral third party in any discussions that would be held between two nations that have a long history of mutual animosity.
Barakzai said in the past more than 20 meetings had been held between the ISI, NDS and Nato, but they failed to deliver lasting results.
“Now imagine what those talks would be like without any outside party to mediate,” Barakzai said in reference to the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign forces from Afghanistan last year.
It was exactly these suspicions that Sharif tried to put to rest at a press conference in Kabul last month.
Speaking alongside Ghani, and with General Raheel Sharif, the Chief of Army Staff, within earshot, Sharif tried to reassure the Afghan public that his country would treat any terrorist activity on Afghan soil as if it were a threat to Pakistan itself.
“We stand in strong solidarity with Afghanistan. I assure you that the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan,” Sharif said.
The prime minister then went on to say: “There are no other two countries that have so much in common. We are friends.”
Despite the backlash, Ghani remains confident that the road to peace in Afghanistan leads directly through Pakistan.
Addressing a gathering in the southern province of Kandahar last week, the Afghan president said: “Reconciliation does not take place with a brother but it is done with those who fight with you … We should open peace talks with Pakistan to encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiation table.”
However, Fatemi tried to tamp expectations, saying Pakistan can only exert so much influence on the Afghan Taliban.
“We had, and may still have, some influence [on the Taliban]. But we can’t pick people and take them to the table and make them sign on the dotted line. We can only play a marginal role,” Fatemi said.
It is this rhetoric that most worries the Afghan public.
“Initially the Pakistanis were in agreement [with Ghani] and said they will do what it takes to bring peace, but now they are changing their tune,” said Barakzai.
Barakzai, who attended talks with the Taliban earlier this month in Norway, said though the group seems ready for peace, they too were weary of Pakistani involvement in the process.
“What we need is an Afghan-to-Afghan process.”
For Barakzai, the Taliban delegation in Qatar, where they briefly set up a political office in the summer of 2013, is proof of the group’s desire to distance themselves from Pakistan.
“If they were happy with Pakistan, why would they be demanding the reopening of their Doha office,” Barakzai asked.
Abdullah Azada Khenjani, news director for the privately owned 1TV, agrees that the majority of the Afghan people are in opposition to the MoU.
“If you look at social media, you will be hard pressed to find anyone in favour of this agreement,” Khenjani, who spoke to top officials in Islamabad last week, said.
The president, said Khenjani, took a “big political risk” in allying himself with Pakistan.
A risk which he said has yet to pay off.
In order to chip away at the decades of mistrust and hostility towards Pakistan among the Afghan people, Khenjani said Pakistan must show that they have acknowledged the magnitude of the political risk Ghani took.
“The only way to do that is for Pakistan to translate their words into clear actions,” said Khenjani.
Without proof of a shift in Pakistan’s attitude towards Afghanistan, Khenjani said Ghani will continue to fight an uphill battle in convincing the Afghan people that Pakistan can serve as a guarantor of peace in the nation.
“There has long been a sense of Pakistan phobia among the Afghan people, and it has only increased with time. The MoU has done nothing to help it.”
Ultimately, Khenjani said the Afghan people have only one request of Pakistan: “They must end their support of terrorism in Afghanistan.”
The writer is LA Times correspondent based in Kabul
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2015