Has Pakistan really shifted its policy towards neighbouring Afghanistan and, if so, what lies behind the change? Reports of a policy reversal in Islamabad surfaced in November 2012, when Pakistan agreed to release around a dozen Afghan Taliban members who, it was hoped, would play a role in a negotiated peace with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. A further gesture of goodwill was its January 2013 announcement that it would free all of its Afghan Taliban detainees. Before this, Pakistan had maintained a position of strategic ambiguity regarding the arrangements for Afghanistan's future after the NATO/ISAF withdrawal in 2014. Its lack of enthusiasm for peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul even extended to jailing Taliban leaders in favour of such initiatives, such as Mullah Ghani Baradar.
But Western diplomats have been pleasantly surprised to be on the receiving end of this Pakistani charm offensive, emphasising the need to cooperate on finding a durable political solution that will outlast the NATO/ISAF drawdown. In addition to releasing Taliban detainees and guaranteeing safe passage for those involved in peace talks, Pakistan has promised to ask for United Nations sanctions on Afghan Taliban leaders to be lifted. In November 2012, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani travelled to Kabul to sign an agreement to improve border security. In December, Kayani and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar flew to Brussels, where Khar met United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss Afghanistan's future and joint counter-terrorism efforts in the region. On 5 February this year, Islamabad and Kabul agreed to a 'structured interaction', establishing a hotline between their respective militaries and intelligence wings. Pakistan also said that it would finally support and facilitate talks with the Taliban via an office in Doha. All of these moves have been seen in the West as positive developments for Afghanistan's post-2014 future.
History of mistrust
Although denied by Pakistan, for decades its military adhered to a singular interpretation of the doctrine of 'strategic depth', in which it saw Afghanistan as a counterweight to ongoing tensions with India and sought leverage over its northwestern neighbour for its own political purposes. One of its greatest fears was being sandwiched between arch-rival India and a strong, possibly hostile Afghanistan. Unlike India, Pakistan recognised and even supported the Taliban regime. Since that regime was ejected from Kabul in 2001, Pakistan has also harboured doubts about the feasibility of Western governments' strategy in Afghanistan and their willingness to see it through. A further complicating factor is Pakistan's long-standing desire to minimise calls for a separate state for the Pashtun population straddling the Durand Line, its contested border with Afghanistan. Pashtun nationalism and separatism are considered by Pakistan to be a threat to its territorial integrity.
It is these anxieties about Afghanistan's future that have contributed to Islamabad's strategic ambiguity towards its neighbour. On the one hand, Pakistan agreed to act as an ally in the US-led campaign against al-Qaeda and to serve as a logistics conduit for NATO/ISAF operations (albeit with periods of interruption). On the other, militants based on its soil acted as spoilers in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban leadership that fled US operations in Afghanistan in 2001 found sanctuary in Pakistan, and exploited both ethnic Pashtun links and Taliban insurgents as a means of exerting influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban and other Pakistani extremist groups, such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Tayiba, have been able to engage in cross-border attacks and terrorist operations in Kabul, including attacks on the Indian embassy and the Serena Hotel. The September 2011 assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan government's negotiator with the Taliban, was reported to have been planned in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Accusations that elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency have provided funding and training to the Afghan Taliban have been firmly denied.
Washington and other Western capitals came to believe that Pakistan was 'playing a double game', straining relations with the US in particular. These reached a low point in 2011. First, there was a diplomatic row over the January arrest and subsequent release of CIA contractor Raymond Davies for the fatal shooting of two men in Lahore during what he claimed was an attempted robbery. (The US claimed Davies had diplomatic immunity, while local protesters and media called for his conviction.) Islamabad was angered not to have been consulted beforehand on the US special-forces raid on a compound in Abbottabad in May, in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed. Meanwhile, the fact that bin Laden had resided for so long in a Pakistani military town apparently without being detected raised Washington's suspicions.
The bilateral relationship was further damaged when a NATO air attack on a Pakistani border post in Salala in late November led to the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan closed its roads to NATO supply convoys afterwards. Throughout the year, the US programme of targeting insurgent leaders in Pakistan with unmanned aerial vehicles or 'drones' - and the civilian deaths the programme caused - remained a source of aggravation for Islamabad.
The Afghanistan transition
Pakistan was sceptical when US President Barack Obama announced a timetable in December 2009 for NATO/ISAF to withdraw from Afghanistan. Islamabad argued that the US should be considering the conditions on the ground first instead of focusing on dates in its calendar. It was also critical of the US 'talk-and-fight' strategy, designed to step up the immediate military pressure on the Taliban to drive it to the negotiating table. Pakistan argued that the Afghan Taliban would be more likely to commit to local ceasefires and open a political space for talks if Western forces first reduced their attacks, including bringing an end to night raids.