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Afghanistan builds up strategic partnership with Pakistan

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; A12

KABUL -- At the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul these days, a visitor is likely to be handed a booklet about the two countries by Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq titled "The Conjoined Twins."

But unlike in other periods in the fraught Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship, when they might have wanted surgical separation, both sides say they are happy to be locked together.

"Pakistan and Afghanistan are brothers," Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said in Kabul on Monday. "We have improved our relations considerably."

A transit trade deal reached by the two neighbors Sunday is the latest milestone in a rapidly changing relationship long characterized by distrust and ill will -- and one that could have broad consequences for how they confront their shared Taliban insurgency. Officials from both countries now speak with marked optimism about the prospects for collaboration.

"It's a paradigm shift," Sadiq said in an interview last week. "We see a lot more confidence in each other, a lot more cooperation in very sensitive fields."

"We now have a better relationship with Pakistan," a senior Afghan official said. "There is a new willingness on both sides that we should resolve the [Taliban] problem. We are both suffering from this menace."

Even before Pakistan agreed to allow Afghan trucks to transport goods through its country to the Indian border, a potential boon for Afghan agricultural exports, several signs pointed to a thaw in the rivalry between the wary neighbors, who share one of the world's most volatile borders.

Critics of Afghan President Hamid Karzai remain skeptical, however, that Pakistan will commit to destroying elements of the Taliban network, which senior U.S. officials think is supported by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to some degree.

"We know that Mr. Karzai is in a very dangerous game that he cannot win. It's impossible," said Saleh Mohammad Registani, an Afghan lawmaker. "This game is controlled by Pakistan."

Strategic partnership

Pakistani officials trace the improvement in ties to 2008, after the departure of President Pervez Musharraf, who had a troubled relationship with Karzai. The next year, Pakistan stayed neutral during the political crisis that followed Afghanistan's fraud-marred presidential election, Pakistani officials said. Karzai blamed the West for undermining his chances.

Other officials familiar with Karzai's thinking say he also has lost faith in NATO forces' ability to defeat the insurgency and has turned to Pakistan to help broker a deal to end the conflict.

Last year, Karzai agreed to allow Afghan students to accept scholarships to study in Pakistan -- a move that will push the number of Afghan graduate students in Pakistan from about 6,000 to 8,000, Sadiq said. Three weeks ago, Karzai agreed to send Afghan military officers across the border to be trained by the Pakistani military. Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, told reporters in Kabul that the first batch of 20 Afghan officers would leave for Pakistan soon.

"President Karzai used to tell them, half in jest and half seriously, 'I'm not going to send students or military officers to Pakistan as long as you send suicide bombers into Afghanistan,' " said a former diplomat who worked in Kabul. "Without any assurance that's not going to happen, he's given the green light for this."

There has also been accelerated diplomacy at the highest levels, with Karzai traveling to Islamabad in March and recent visits to Kabul by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the head of the Pakistani army, and Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Pakistan's intelligence chief, to discuss potential cooperation on jump-starting negotiations with the Taliban.

A friendly 'facilitator'

Those developments have raised concern that Karzai is moving faster than many Afghans would like to try to broker a political deal that could bring the Taliban back into the government. Some officials in Karzai's office say they fear that Pakistan might not negotiate sincerely and will use its influence with the Taliban in ways that hurt Afghans.

"It all depends on the Pakistanis -- they have to prove their honesty," one senior Afghan official said. "If they're not honest, this will erupt."

Qureshi said Monday that Pakistan wants the modest role of "facilitator." During Karzai's visit to Islamabad in March, Pakistani officials asked the Afghan president to develop a "strategic framework" -- including proposals for negotiating with the Taliban. They are now waiting for the Afghans "to share their plans and programs with us," Qureshi said.

"It entirely depends on the Afghan government, what they want us to do. We have no specific agenda," he said. "In us, they will find friends willing to help."

Senior NATO officials in Kabul say they are not particularly concerned by Karzai's push for rapprochement.

"Everyone's focus at the moment is to help these two countries," NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, told reporters Saturday. "There has been nothing in the dialogue between the two countries with which we're uncomfortable, and all of us would like to see them working more effectively together."

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