Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pakistani and Afghan leaders eye new ties

A pledge by Pakistan and Afghanistan to work together to fight militants could build trust between the uneasy U.S. allies, but differences in security strategies could undermine their efforts, analysts said.

In a rare show of solidarity, Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended the inauguration of Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, on Tuesday after his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, a staunch U.S. ally, was forced to resign last month. Speaking at a news conference, both leaders later stressed their intention to work together against the militant threat.

Relations between the neighbors have been severely strained in recent years by Afghan and U.S. complaints that militants are operating out of sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun lands along the Afghan border.

Pakistan says it is doing all it can to stop cross-border movement by militants. But it plays down the importance of the sanctuaries, saying the Afghan war is largely an Afghan problem.

“Both governments are threatened by al Qaeda and the Taliban. They say they want to cooperate. Now the question is how much they cooperate and how much they can address Karzai’s complaints,” analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said on Wednesday.

The United States, apparently frustrated with growing cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, has stepped up its strikes on militants in Pakistan, infuriating Pakistanis many of whom are deeply opposed to the U.S. campaign against militancy.

Like Musharraf, Zardari is also seen as close to the United States. But Zardari as an elected civilian leader, will have to pay heed to the sentiments of the Pakistani people or risk his party’s rejection in the next parliamentary elections.

Karzai, who is expected to seek a new term next year, wants the fight taken to the militant sanctuaries, meaning northwest Pakistan, rather than foreign forces inflicting ever greater civilian casualties inside Afghanistan.

More strikes in Pakistan, with seemingly inevitable civilian casualties, will turn up the domestic heat on Zardari.

“If such attacks continue, then there will be more collateral damage and there will be more frustration and alienation among the people,” said former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, Rustam Shah Mohmand.

BLAME GAME

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Dawn Television late on Tuesday the two countries planned to bring tribal elders from both sides for a traditional council, or jirga, to ponder the problems.

The two countries had also agreed that their top security advisers would meet monthly, he said.

“We want greater cooperation, we want greater sharing of information, intelligence sharing, so that we put an end to the blame game,” Qureshi said.

Karzai has often blamed Pakistan for failing to act. In July, Afghanistan accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency of being behind a suicide bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed 58 people.

Afghanistan says Pakistan feels threatened by its close ties with Pakistan’s old rival, India. Pakistan denied any involvement of its security agents in attacks in Afghanistan.

Rizvi said while the Pakistan army was taking serious action against militants on the border, it remained to be seen how much Zardari would succeed in allaying Karzai’s concerns about the ISI, Pakistan’s main military spy agency.

“The military has become more serious, but we are not sure about the ISI,” he said.

Retired Pakistani general turned security analyst Talat Masood said Musharraf had poor personal relations with Karzai and while Zardari and Karzai were keen to develop ties, the relationship would be hostage to events.

“Unless the security situation changes on the ground, it will be very difficult for the countries to really transform their pledges into something more productive and meaningful,” he said.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)