With Ties Strained, Pakistan's PM Makes First Visit to Kabul

(Bloomberg) -- Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi made his first visit to Kabul on Friday to hold counter-terrorism talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani aimed at easing tensions between the neighboring nations.

His one-day visit to the Afghan capital, the first by a Pakistani premier in three years, comes as bilateral relations have drastically soured. Both nations accuse the other of harboring insurgents that launch cross-border attacks. Ghani has said Pakistan is waging an “undeclared war of aggression” against his nation and has threatened armed confrontation over Islamabad’s efforts to fence their disputed border.

The leaders discussed security, border violations, energy projects and Abbasi “welcomed Ghani’s peace offer to the Taliban and vowed his government will cooperate in that regard,” Afghanistan’s presidency said in a statement. “Nobody wants peace in Afghanistan more than Pakistan,” Abbasi said a day earlier in Islamabad. “If Afghanistan is unstable there is instability in Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s military has long been accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban to counter its fears of Indian encirclement and influence in Afghanistan. Yet Islamabad has come under increasing pressure to act against the Taliban and affiliated Haqqani network, which Washington says has sanctuary within Pakistan’s borders. In January, U.S. President Donald Trump suspended military aid to the nuclear-armed nation and accused Pakistan of giving “lies and deceit” in return for years of U.S. funding.

Little Sway

Abbasi told Bloomberg in February that he saw no military solution to the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan and that little progress would be made until all sides entered peace talks. He voiced skepticism over Trump’s troop increase to assist the Afghan security forces and said Islamabad was ready to mediate talks with the Taliban.

Ultimately Abbasi may hold little sway over Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan, which is seen as the domain of its powerful military. In the 1980s, Pakistan’s main spy agency channeled weapons and funds to Mujahideen commanders fighting Russian forces in Afghanistan and then cultivated the Taliban after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Yet Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has visited Kabul multiple times since his appointment in November 2016 and increasing engagement with Pakistan this year has added to hopes that a peace deal may be hashed out with the Taliban.

Ghani proposed a far-reaching offer to the insurgent group in February, which included potential political recognition, removal of sanctions and prisoner releases. The Taliban has yet to respond to Ghani’s olive branch, though it has previously stated that his administration is illegitimate and has requested talks with the U.S.

‘Good opportunity’

“This as a good opportunity for Pakistan to work honestly alongside Kabul on counter-terrorism in order to ease its severe U.S. pressures,” said Abdul Baqi Amin, director general of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic and Regional Studies.

In recent years Afghanistan and the U.S. has attempted many rounds of ultimately fruitless talks with Taliban members. Nonetheless, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Haneef Atmar, told reporters in Washington last month he was optimistic about reaching peace with the Taliban, which controls or contests nearly half the country.

Trump is the third U.S. president attempting to end the quagmire in Afghanistan, now America’s longest war. Previously critical of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Trump boosted U.S. troop levels to 14,000 in the country an attempt to shore up Afghan forces and pressure the Taliban to reconciliation. Still that’s well below the 2011 peak of 140,000 troops under his predecessor Barack Obama.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.