Speaking at the sixth Heart of Asia ministerial conference in the Indian city of Amritsar, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged Pakistani authorities to act against the militants’ sanctuaries in their country’s northwestern tribal areas. Ghani said the 500-million-dollar-aid that Islamabad pledged for the reconstruction of Afghanistan would be better spent on eradicating terrorists that continue to launch attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil.
“We must confront the specter in the room,” Ghani said on Sunday, referring to what he said was a fresh wave of terrorism and political violence affecting the region.
“Responses of states on this has been significant, but some states provide sanctuary and tolerate these networks,” Ghani said, adding that a Taliban leader had said recently if the group did not have sanctuary in Pakistan, it would not last a month.
It is not the first time the Afghan government has criticized Pakistan for its alleged lack of cooperation in the fight against terror. In the last years’ Heart of Asia conference too, Kabul made similar accusations against Islamabad.
The Heart of Asia Istanbul Ministerial Process was established in November 2011 to provide a platform to discuss regional issues, particularly strengthening security, economic and political cooperation in Afghanistan and among its neighbors. The United States and some 20 other countries serve as “supporting nations” in the process.
The United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan, Norway and the European Union are taking part in this year’s conference being held in the northwestern Indian city of Amritsar.
Afghanistan and India have increased trade and defense cooperation in the past few years
The Indian-Pakistani rivalry
As ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan have deteriorated in the past few years, Kabul has drifted towards Pakistan’s arch-rival India. Afghanistan and India have increased trade and defense cooperation and have launched a number of development projects that involve Iran and some Central Asian nations.
New Delhi, too, accuses Pakistan of backing Islamist militants in India-administered Kashmir. In his opening remarks at the Heart of Asia conference, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed terrorism “the biggest threat to the peace in Afghanistan and the region,” according to Indian media.
“We must counter terrorists and their masters. We must demonstrate strong collective will to defeat terror network that cause bloodshed and spread fear,” Modi told the conference participants in a veiled reference to Pakistan. “Silence and inaction on terror in Afghanistan and the region will only embolden terrorists and masters and those fund them,” he added.
The Indian premier reiterated his country’s commitment to “durable peace” in Afghanistan and announced plans to connect India and Afghanistan via an air link.
Adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, who is taking part in the conference, rejected the claims that his country was not supporting the peace process in the region, Radio Pakistan reported.
“Pakistan is ready to extend every kind of cooperation for lasting peace in Afghanistan,” Aziz said, adding that Afghanistan should avoid blaming Pakistan for its domestic problems.
Is Islamabad cooperating?
The previous rounds of the Heart of Asia failed to achieve any of the objectives that the Istanbul Ministerial Process had set for itself. The Afghanistan peace process never really took off, as the Taliban insurgents are not cooperating with the government in Kabul.
Experts say that Pakistan’s powerful military still considers the Taliban an important strategic ally and believes the group should be part of the Afghan government. Observers are of the view that the Pakistani military hopes to regain the influence it enjoyed in Kabul before the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban government in 2001.
Siegfried O. Wolf, a political science expert at Heidelberg University, is of the same view. He told DW that he was convinced that several elements within Pakistan’s security apparatus still believe that the Taliban could be used as a strategic tool to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan.
IS has claimed at least three major attacks inside Pakistan this year
Regional tug of war
The United States and China want stability in Afghanistan, but both have conflicting interests in the war-torn country. After the Taliban surprisingly overtook Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city of Kunduz in July 2015, US President Barack Obama revised his decision of complete troop withdrawal by 2017. More than 5,000 US soldiers will now stay in the war-torn country to help the Afghan security forces for an indefinite period of time. But foreign and security affairs analysts say that President-elect Donald Trump could adopt a different Afghan policy when he takes charge in January 2017.
Experts also say the US wants to leave Afghanistan, but it wants its interests to be protected in the country. For that reason, the Obama administration is seeking Islamabad’s help. It believes that the Pakistani military enjoys considerable influence on the Taliban leadership.
China, on the other hand, is wary of the Islamists operating in Xinjiang and their alliance with the Taliban and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also seeks Pakistan’s assistance – not only to help create peace in Afghanistan, but also keep regional rival India at bay.
The threat of ‘Islamic State’
The Heart of Asia summit is taking place at a time when the Middle Eastern militant group “Islamic State” (IS) has made huge gains in Afghanistan and is increasing its presence in the country. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of terror attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past few months.
A number of Taliban fighters have joined IS
Analyst Wolf fears that Taliban infighting could lead to more defections of frustrated militants to IS. He is also of the view that an impending IS defeat in Iraq and Syria could push its fighters towards the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
“The IS ideology finds resonance in Pakistan. There are many religious groups that openly endorse it; however, they are quite small in size. But I fear that IS could still count on their backing,” Peshawar-based expert Iqbal Khattak told DW.
Khattak says that military operations alone won’t solve the problem. “It is extremely important for the Pakistani state to invest in the welfare of common people and launch development programs to eradicate poverty and discourage people from joining the ranks of extremist outfits,” he said. “Until then, anything is possible in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he added.