KABUL — When Pakistan's army chief visited the Afghan capital Oct. 1, he did his best to disarm his hosts. He offered to train and equip Afghan troops, and he promised to cooperate in peace and counterterrorism efforts. Afghan officials, in turn, received him with a military honor guard and issued an upbeat statement heralding "a new season" in their troubled relationship.
But behind the diplomatic gestures, there was little to indicate that anything had changed. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, humiliated in previous attempts to mend fences and take Pakistani officials at their word, demanded coolly that monitoring teams and mechanisms be established to ensure all promises and deadlines were implemented.
Even before Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s plane departed, the barrage of criticism had begun. Afghan analysts, politicians and former officials pronounced his visit another attempt by Pakistan to “deceive” their country while secretly supporting anti-Afghan militants. Bajwa had come calling only out of desperation, they said, because of intense pressure from the Trump administration.
“Pakistan is trying to pretend it is changing, but after 16 years of double games, these are only tactical moves,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former Afghan intelligence chief. “Pakistan has been using terrorism as a tool of state policy for decades, and Afghanistan has been the victim of terrorism for decades. As long as Pakistan does not change this policy, no equilibrium can be established.”
Pakistan has reason to feel desperate. Faced with the threat of unprecedented U.S. sanctions and fresh accusations that it has not done enough to stop cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, its military has responded with a variety of tactics: indignant denials, aid offers, history lessons, helicopter tours of pacified border zones, condolence messages to Afghan bombing victims and high-profile efforts to build a wall along their 1,800-mile border.
But nothing seems to be working.
Last week in Washington, senior U.S. officials repeated charges that Pakistan is providing sanctuary for an aggressive Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional panel it was "clear" that Pakistan's intelligence agency "has connections with terrorist groups."
At a separate hearing, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Trump administration would try “one more time” to work with Pakistan on the Taliban issue, but if it failed, “the president is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary.” He said that could include revoking Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally, a harsh blow to the former Cold War partner.
Pakistan has consistently denied providing shelter to anti-Afghan militants. Its prime minister told the U.N. General Assembly recently it was “especially galling” to hear such criticism when Pakistan has suffered from years of terrorist attacks. Its foreign minister told another audience in New York this week that Washington had no right to condemn Pakistan for supporting militant leaders it had “wined and dined” during past conflicts.
Asked Thursday about the latest U.S. comments, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Pakistan has “successfully erased the footprint of terrorists from our soil” and that most insurgent activities, including attacks on Pakistan, emanate from “ungoverned spaces inside Afghanistan” rather than from Pakistani havens.
Despite their doubts, some Afghan officials say they believe Pakistan’s security establishment is being forced to pivot in its thinking on Afghanistan. They see Bajwa’s visit to Kabul as a sign of this shift — especially his one-on-one meeting with Ghani, which one Afghan diplomat described as unusually candid, “constructive and encouraging.”
Pakistan once backed Taliban rule in Kabul, and it has long sought to keep Afghanistan weak and dependent as a counterweight to India, its powerful neighbor and rival to the east. But now, Pakistan’s regional partners and investors are echoing new U.S. demands that it help end the 16-year Afghan conflict, which they see as a threat to stability.
“From our past experience, no Afghan should be optimistic about Pakistan supporting our cause. But the new American strategy has created an opportunity that it should explore,” said Javed Faisal, a senior aide to Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. He said Pakistan’s support for militants abroad had backfired.
“If they don’t change, they will face isolation from the world,” Faisal said. “We should work with them to build trust and tackle terrorism together.”
Skeptical Afghans point to years of broken promises, failed meetings and peace initiatives that went nowhere. Former president Hamid Karzai made an unprecedented trip to Islamabad a decade ago, carrying a list of Taliban hideouts, and came back empty-handed. Ghani praised Pakistan in 2015 for hosting peace talks, only to be mortified when Pakistan suddenly revealed the death of former Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and canceled the talks.
Within Pakistan, there is also resistance to rapprochement or concessions. The week of Sept. 24, the new interior minister was reprimanded by Parliament for suggesting that the country should “put its own house in order” before seeking foreign support. Even Bajwa, the most powerful official in Pakistan, faced some pushback for his diplomatic foray. The military spokesman, while touting the initiative, noted that “there was some discomfort in security and civil quarters” about it.
Munir Akram, a former Pakistani diplomat with strong nationalist views, wrote recently that efforts to engage with the United States will prove fruitless and that President Trump’s new policy of sending more troops and putting pressure on Islamabad is not aimed at pacifying Afghanistan but at imposing a broad “Pax Indo-Americana” on the region.
“Pakistan should prepare itself to bear the pain of threatened U.S. sanctions. It should draw its own red lines,” Munir wrote in Dawn, a major daily newspaper in Pakistan. “Any sign of weakness will intensify, not ameliorate, U.S. coercion.”
Even if it is in Pakistan’s urgent interest to smooth its relations with Afghanistan, some analysts said, the most intractable obstacle is the gulf between Afghan and Pakistani perceptions of regional reality. Afghans see the Taliban insurgency as the main threat to their security and Pakistan as its backer; Pakistan sees India as a permanent threat to its existence and its friendship with Afghanistan as an extension of that threat.
"For all the complimentary rhetoric on both sides now, there is a total disconnect between how they define the problem," said Davood Moradian, president of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. "They both face the threat of terrorism and they have to come to an understanding, but it is not happening. At this point, I can see no positive outcome."