While welcoming recent improvement in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations including cooperative steps against cross-border militancy, the US Defense Department has said Islamabad’s role remains vital to achieving Afghan stability.
A Pentagon report submitted to US Congress this month says “Afghanistan and Pakistan also share mutual concerns over the potential emergence of ISIL elements in the region.”
“Since President (Ashraf) Ghani’s inauguration, Afghan and Pakistani leaders have conducted several high-level engagements and engaged in a cooperative security dialogue, representing a promising trend for regional security,” the report on Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan said.
Coming in the wake of some positive developments as well as challenges – including military transition in Afghanistan after 13 years of 9/11-sparked war – the report notes that Afghanistan and Pakistan began to cooperate on shared security interests, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2015.
Since the start of the current year, the United States is no longer engaged in a combat mission in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government is responsible for its own internal security.
In recent months the US officials including military officers and diplomats have expressed appreciation for the improving Pakistan-Afghanistan relations through cooperative political and military efforts.
A State Department annual report on terrorism this week also acknowledged the efficacy of the Pakistani Zarb-e-Azb operation in eliminating sanctuaries of al-Qaeda-linked militant groups along the Afghan border. The State Department also said Pakistan remains a critical counterterrorism partner.
Focusing on Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation, the Pentagon report cites a May 12 press conference when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reaffirmed Pakistan’s support of an Afghan reconciliation process, condemned the Afghan Taliban’s Spring offensive, and vowed to take coordinated action with Afghanistan against militant hideouts along the border.
Sharif publicly condemned the Taliban’s spring offensive, insisting, the “enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan.” President Ghani reinforced this message by similarly saying that the enemies of Pakistan cannot be the friends of Afghanistan.
”The military-to-military relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is also showing improvement, and Plans for future engagement have been gaining momentum.”
Since December 2014, the Pakistani military has pressured extremists and terrorists operating in the border region through operations, such as Operation KHYBER II.
While undertaking Operation KHYBER II, the Pakistani military attempted to coordinate bilaterally with Afghan military representatives instead of through US or coalition channels.
“Both the Afghan and Pakistan governments have indicated a desire to coordinate cross-border security and are in the process of finalizing a Bilateral Military Coordination Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).”
The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is now attempting to capitalise on the Pakistani military operations on their side of the border.
“Recent Pakistan military operations have caused some disruption to the Haqqani Network. However, it has still been able to plan and conduct attacks.”
Regarding challenges besetting Afghanistan, the report says anti-Afghan forces, al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and others will continue to present a formidable threat to US, coalition, and Afghan forces.
About new threats, the report notes the “emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or Daesh) activity in Afghanistan is of concern to US, coalition, Afghan, and other regional governments, as well as to extremist groups that have been operating in the region for some time. ISIL will likely continue to try to expand its presence in Afghanistan during the upcoming year, and it will compete for relevance with the Taliban and other extant terrorist and insurgent groups.”
Going forward, “Pakistan remains critical to Afghanistan’s security and stability.”
The day after the school attack, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif flew to Afghanistan to meet President Ghani. By the end of December 2014, the Pakistani government created a National Action Plan to eliminate terrorism from inside its borders; this remains a long-term plan that will have to overcome significant obstacles.