Ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan are beginning to thaw as a group of Afghan cadets has arrived in Islamabad to receive military training. But Pakistan needs to do a lot more to win the Afghan trust, say experts.
For years, the Afghan government has accused Islamabad of harboring, nurturing and aiding Taliban militants to fuel insurgency on its soil. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had categorically blamed the Pakistani military and its spy organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for orchestrating attacks on the Afghan army and international troops in Afghanistan by providing logistical support to Islamist militants - a charge denied by Islamabad. But it seems the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants to start afresh and give Pakistan a chance.
Six Afghan army cadets are currently receiving military training at Kakul Military Academy in the northern garrison city of Abbottabad. The Pakistani army will train these soldiers for 18 months to help boost the Afghan army's capacity to fight terrorists. A five-member delegation of Afghanistan's army is also visiting Islamabad to discuss security matters with Pakistani military leaders.
The two neighbors decided to increase military cooperation after a Taliban school attack in December
Janan Mosazai, the Afghan ambassador to Islamabad, believes the move signals an improvement in ties between the two South Asian nations. He also said the Afghan government selected the six best soldiers for the training. "The Afghan forces have improved tremendously over the past decade. Our army has the backing of the Afghan public," Mosazai told reporters in Islamabad.
There are currently 300 Afghan cadets in India, receiving training from the Indian army. The Pakistani generals offered similar assistance to Afghanistan in the past to counter India's growing influence in Afghanistan, but former Afghan President Hamid Karzai declined, preferring New Delhi over Islamabad.
Islamabad-based defense and security analyst, Asad Munir, told DW that President Ghani has taken a number of steps to improve relations with Pakistan, and the training of cadets in Kakul is one of them. "The Afghan forces have taken action against militants in the areas bordering Pakistan. It is proof that Kabul wants better ties with its neighbor," Munir said.
Experts also say that improved bilateral relations are a result of Pakistan's Army Chief Raheel Sharif's efforts. "Last year, General Sharif visited Kabul four times," Afghanistan expert and journalist Tahir Khan, told DW.
"Sharif must have convinced the Afghan officials that Pakistan is serious about enhancing military cooperation, otherwise the exchange of cadets would not have taken place," Khan added.
However, General Atiqullah Amarkhail, Afghanistan's former air force commander and a member of the Afghan government's advisory council on military issues, said, "It is a bad idea to send officers to Pakistan for military trainings," as this could upset India.
"Pakistan has been insisting on training Afghan security forces for two years. Former President Hamid Karzai never agreed to sending Afghan officers to Pakistani military academies as he did not want to annoy India," Amarkhail said, adding that the two countries agreed on increasing military cooperation in the aftermath of a school attack in Peshawar in December.
"If Pakistan and Afghanistan want to work together, there are other ways to do it. There is an anti-Indian sentiment among the Pakistani military and it comes up in the trainings. How useful can Afghan officers with anti-Indian sentiment be for our country?" said the former Afghan general.
More needs to be done
A number of analysts, however, believe that Afghan-Pakistani ties won't substantially improve and that minor developments won't be sustainable until Islamabad abandons its decades-old Afghanistan policy.
Pakistan's military and civil establishment, analysts say, still consider the Taliban an important strategic ally, who they think should be part of the Afghan government. Observers say that the Pakistani military hopes to regain the influence in Kabul it once enjoyed before the United States and its allies toppled the pro-Pakistan Taliban government in 2001.
Experts say that Islamabad wants to counter India's influence in Afghanistan by supporting some Taliban groups
Matt Waldman, a researcher on the Afghanistan conflict at Harvard University, believes that Pakistan won't relinquish its support for the Taliban until the regional dynamics undergo a transformation. "The evidence indicates that Pakistan hasn't fundamentally changed its Afghanistan policy," Waldman told DW.
Siegfried O. Wolf, a political science expert at Heidelberg University, is of the same view. He told DW that he was convinced that several members of the Pakistan security apparatus still believed that the Taliban could be used as a strategic tool to counter the Indian presence in Afghanistan.
New Delhi is not only forging a military alliance with Kabul but also assisting the war-torn country in building its infrastructure. Last year, India announced a two billion USD aid package for Afghanistan - the biggest it has ever given to another country.
In light of this development, analysts underline the cadets' training alone won't change the regional dynamics and the Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.