Afghans voice wariness of Pakistan’s Sharif

PARWIZ/REUTERS - Afghan protesters set fire to a Pakistan flag during a demonstration against recent border clashes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many Afghans voice distrust of incoming Pakistani premier who once supported the Taliban.

KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai, calling to congratulate Pakistan’s prime minister-elect this week on his victory in parliamentary elections, said he hoped the new government in Islamabad would create a “brotherly and peaceful atmosphere with Afghanistan” and cooperate in efforts to destroy terrorist hideouts so both “brother nations” can be saved.

But across Afghan society, many people scoffed at the notions that Nawaz Sharif, a former two-time prime minister, might feel any goodwill toward Pakistan’s fellow Muslim neighbor or seek to improve a relationship long dogged by mutual charges of bad faith, political interference and militant skulduggery.

(DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS) - Nawaz Sharif, following his victory in the historic election, will become the new leader of Pakistan.

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In interviews in the Afghan capital, political figures, experts and residents expressed strong negative opinions about Pakistan’s trustworthiness and Sharif’s political record and religious views, especially his support for the Afghan Taliban while he was prime minister in the late 1990s and his continued tolerance of armed religious groups in Pakistan.

“It is a mistake to test someone who has already been tested and failed you,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired Afghan army general. “Nawaz Sharif did his utmost to fan the civil war in Afghanistan. He was the main figure behind the disintegration of our army, and then he helped the Taliban.”

Sharif’s goals, Amarkhel said, will be “the same as previous Pakistani regimes — to keep Afghanistan unstable, weak and dependent.”

Sharif has said little about his intended approach to Afghanistan, in contrast with his numerous assertions that he wants to mend fences with Pakistan’s other problematic neighbor, India. Some analysts here said he will probably wait to see how events in Afghanistan play out in 2014, when national elections and the final pullout of NATO troops are scheduled to take place.

Afghan analysts also noted that other actors in Pakistan may have as much of a say in Afghanistan policy as Sharif, especially the powerful military and intelligence establishment that dominates foreign policy and appears inclined to support Islamist militant groups as long as they focus their crusade across the border.

Asked to comment on Sharif’s election, several Afghan residents and political leaders accused Pakistan’s major spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, of working to interfere in and harm their country, and they suggested that Sharif would be either unwilling or unable to challenge it.

“The ISI is the biggest enemy of Afghanistan, and they have had a key role in our deteriorating situation in recent decades,” said Mozhda Walizad, a journalism student at Kabul University. “Unfortunately, the ISI has influence on people, politicians and even the press. This is why civilian governments, including Nawaz’s Muslim League, cannot do anything against them.”

Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid, however, pointed out that Sharif’s sweeping electoral victory, combined with Pakistan’s need for international economic support, would give him the means and the motive to help Afghanistan by putting pressure on the Taliban to move forward on long-stalled peace talks with the Karzai government.

“With the heavy mandate Sharif has obtained and his own desire to be more involved with foreign policy, there will be more interlocutors to influence policy toward the Taliban,” Rashid said in a panel discussion organized by the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “After many years, there will be civilian input into the military’s policy toward Afghanistan and the Taliban, which is a good thing.”

One complicating factor, several Afghan experts said, is the strong electoral showing of Sharif’s main rival, former cricket star Imran Khan, as well as the poor performance of several secular parties. Khan, a onetime liberal, reached out to Pakistani militant groups in his campaign, fulminated against U.S. drone strikes and defended the fighting in Afghanistan as a jihad. His party garnered enough votes to give it political dominance in the volatile northwest border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“President Karzai has asked Pakistan repeatedly to cooperate in going after militant strongholds, but both Imran and Nawaz say they want to solve the problem through negotiations,” said Waheed Mojdah, an Afghan political analyst. “That means letting Pakistani militants come into Afghanistan to support the Taliban. It means more tensions and problems for us.”

Pakistan has long denied backing anti-Kabul militants and has accused Afghanistan of exporting its problems across the border. In recent weeks, several clashes have erupted between Afghan security forces and Pakistanis manning border outposts, resulting in the death of an Afghan police officer. The violence triggered protests in Afghan cities and reignited a perennial dispute over a British-drawn boundary known as the Durand Line.

Despite its cordial language, Karzai’s message to Sharif this week focused pointedly on the issue of Pakistan sheltering anti-Afghan militants in the tribal border region. He has complained about this covert policy to Sharif’s predecessors for a decade and has met with repeated denials. After the recent violence, he angrily suggested that the Taliban “turn and take aim” at the “real enemy” across the border.

Sharif, despite his experience on the world stage, is also widely viewed here as a religious fundamentalist who has coddled Islamic groups. He was repeatedly quoted during his campaign as vowing to withdraw Pakistan from the U.S.-led war on international terrorism.

“Sharif has been extremely ambiguous on the issue of extremism,” said Imtiaz Gul, an author and director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “His people will have to come clean on what they think are the real threats to Pakistan.”

A few Afghans said this week that they wished Sharif well and hoped his election would provide a fresh start for bilateral relations. Pakistani leaders often point out that both countries have suffered from terrorism and that establishing peace and security in Afghanistan would also benefit Pakistan. Perhaps at age 63, one man said hopefully, an older and wiser Sharif will take those slogans seriously.

“If he continues his past policies, not only will we suffer, but they will, too,” said Obaidullah Ramin, a lawmaker and former aide to Karzai. “He needs to learn from his past times in power and chart an honest, sincere strategy with Afghanistan.”

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

 
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