- - Sunday, May 31, 2015

LAHORE, Pakistan — A landmark intelligence-sharing pact between traditional rivals Afghanistan and Pakistan is facing a quick and severe test as the Taliban step up their traditional spring offensive and score some early military successes in Afghanistan’s north.

The Taliban strikes in Kabul and elsewhere have some saying Pakistan’s have repeatedly frustrated American military efforts.

Proponents hail the deal as a welcome shift from the traditional mistrust between leaders in Kabul and Islamabad, who have traded accusations of supporting terrorism in each other’s territories for years.

“This is a positive development,” said Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and independent defense analyst in Islamabad. “The policies that were pursued in the past were extremely detrimental to [both sides’] interests. They were working at cross-purposes and trying to undermine each other’s states.”

Critics, however, said it would be folly to put too much hope in a deal that technically is not a treaty.

The agreement has no way of ensuring that Pakistan will wield its influence over the Taliban and other Islamic militants in Afghanistan, said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author who has written several books about the region. Pakistan, however, is the more powerful country of the two and likely will be able to use the deal to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs for its own strategic purposes, he said.

“No reset in the relations can come until there is a cease-fire and Pakistan helps bring the Taliban to the table for talks with the Afghan government,” said Mr. Rashid. “There is mounting suspicion in Kabul that so far this so-called reset is all going in Pakistan’s favor and the Afghans are getting nothing out of it.”

Mr. Rashid’s concerns echoed those of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has expressed concern that the agreement lopsidedly benefits Pakistan. Last year, Mr. Karzai, who had chilly relations with the U.S. in the final years of his seven-year presidency, accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan as American and allied troops withdrew.

Some in the Afghan government of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani agree and say the real enemy is Pakistan’s powerful intelligence and security agencies.

“It’s like we are showing the robber the way to a safe where we keep our money so they can steal it,” said Col. Mohammad Hadi of the Afghan Ministry of Interior. “NATO couldn’t successfully bring peace to Afghanistan in the last 14 years. This deal will totally destroy our future, we will not have full control of security — the terrorist is ISI itself in Afghanistan.”

Hoping for a thaw

Still, analysts said some shifts in the region could help the deal bear fruit.

Mr. Ghani, who assumed office in September in the first peaceful democratic transition in the country’s history, is eager to thaw relations between Pakistan to counter the threat of Taliban fighters who want to re-impose their radical Islamic orthodoxy in Afghanistan and establish a similar regime in Pakistan. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until U.S.-led forces pushed them out of Kabul shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Also, over the past few months, the Taliban have made worrying advances in the north, deploying militants coming in via Central Asia and Pakistan in greater numbers than seen in years. Taliban forces have defeated the military in provinces such as Kunduz, and the armed forces have sustained significantly higher casualty rates than last year, Afghan security officials said.

“As the NATO and the U.S. forces withdraw, the Taliban want to test their strength against the Afghan forces,” Mr. Masood said.

About 10,000 American troops and other NATO forces are slated to continue bolstering security in the country until at least next year. That is about one-tenth the maximum number of U.S. forces in the country four years ago. Now, many are questioning whether Afghan security forces will be able to counter the Taliban’s offensive without more foreign military support, or cooperation from Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ghani has scaled back cooperation with Pakistan’s archrival, India, in a bid to assure Islamabad that a budding Afghan-Indian alliance won’t threaten Pakistan.

But the new president is also under pressure to change course. In the past year, Pakistan has pushed hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in the country back across the border, citing security concerns about militants amid the throngs of Afghans fleeing violence. Both sides want to better manage the migration of those refugees.

Pakistan pursued the deal after Taliban fighters attacked a military-run school in Peshawar in December, killing 145 people, mostly students. The incident angered Pakistani officials who have been supporting “good Taliban” fighters pursuing Pakistani goals in Afghanistan while cracking down on “bad militants” in their country. Many Pakistani leaders say it’s time to junk those distinctions.

“Ashraf Ghani does bring a new perspective — more consistent than Karzai and more effective in containing his own intelligence service, but the major change may be in Pakistan, where the army is faced with a conflict that is truly deadly,” said Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Deal doubts

Myra MacDonald, an author and Scotland-based South Asia analyst, said the success or failure of the intelligence deal rested largely on the actions of Pakistan. She wasn’t sanguine about its success, however.

“Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Pakistan has resisted intense U.S. pressure to abandon all support for the Afghan Taliban,” said Ms. MacDonald. “There seems to be little reason for it to do so now that the Americans are on their way out.”

She was also skeptical of Pakistan’s change of heart involving its attitudes toward the “good” and “bad” Taliban.

“Some people point to blowback from Pakistani Taliban violence inside Pakistan as a reason for it to change course,” said Ms. MacDonald. “But that has been going on for years without Pakistan changing its policy of supporting or tolerating some militant groups while fighting others.”

Provincial Gov. Mohammad Omer Safi told The Associated Press this week that 3,000 Afghan troops are battling a well-armed Taliban force of some 2,000 fighters who crashed against gates of Kunduz in the north late last month at the start of the spring fighting season. Mr. Safi said supply problems mean the troops lack food, fuel and ammunition for days on end.

“We have surrounded the enemy everywhere and we will not allow them to advance any further,” he told the news service. “Maybe with the passage of time they will be weakened, run out of ammunition and find themselves moved back. This is not a one day or two days, or one month or two months’ fight.”

Ms. MacDonald noted that Pakistan in the past decade has reduced its support for rebels in Kashmir, a territory long disputed between India and Pakistan and the spark for a series of wars between the two. “Some argue this is only a tactical withdrawal, but the results are plain for all to see — peace has been restored to the Kashmir Valley,” she said. “So we have a precedent for Pakistan cutting back its support for Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.”

In the next few months, as the Taliban’s fighting season gears up, the value of the memorandum will become clearer, precisely because Afghanistan will need Pakistan’s help, analysts said, but Afghan first must overcome its mistrust.

Pakistan should make some overtures to open the minds of Afghan people toward Pakistan,” said Mohammad Yousaf Sabir, a lawmaker in Afghanistan’s parliament. “The government of Pakistan has made many promises many times, has said it is partner to Afghanistan and would help Afghanistan to develop and create a stable peace, but unfortunately none of those promises have ever happened.

Pakistan has a key role to play in peace coming to our land, and if Pakistan really helped and worked for this with real heart, I am sure all these troubles would decrease,” he said.

Former Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Sherpao insisted that the situation is different this time.

“Most of the misgivings and mistrust that was created by the establishments and intelligence agencies are in the past,” said Mr. Sherpao, who is also a former governor of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which shares a border with Afghanistan. “Now the countries have a chance to work together, which should be good for the region.”

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