ISLAMABAD: On April 27, a high-powered Pakistan Army delegation led by Chief of General Staff (CGS) Lt Gen Bilal Akbar visited Afghanistan. Five days later, the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar quietly traveled to Kabul.
The flurry of visits by key Pakistani generals was part of the roadmap the two sides had drawn up to reset their troubled ties.
But as the two neighbors were preparing for the next move to further the rapprochement process, Afghan border forces opened fire on Pakistani troops accompanying census teams close to the Chaman crossing on May 5.
The almost day-long bloody exchange of fire left scores dead on both sides and as a consequence dashed hopes of an immediate breakthrough in ties, officials here conceded on Sunday.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been tense for months due to a variety of reasons but mainly because of differences on how to deal with militancy. Both have accused the other of stoking violence and supporting certain militant groups as proxies.
In February, Islamabad reacted strongly to what it termed lack of action by Afghanistan against militant groups responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Diplomatic spats between the two, however, rarely went beyond a war of words. Barring a few border incidents, the security forces of both countries never engaged in bloody clashes of the sort that took place last Friday.
The incident occurred only days after the visit of ISI chief and CGS to Kabul where the two countries, according to sources, agreed to revive communication channels between their military and intelligence agencies.
“All that good work has now been undone by this incident,” admitted a senior Pakistani official familiar with recent de-escalation efforts. The official said Pakistan had been for months making concerted efforts to sort out differences with Afghanistan through sustained talks.
The recent contacts at military and intelligence levels were possible only after weeks of quiet diplomacy. The United Kingdom is thought to have also played a crucial role in bringing the two neighbors to the negotiating table. Britain intervened after series of attacks across the country prompted Pakistan to close down key crossing points for over a month in February.
After backchannel efforts, an ice-breaking meeting was arranged in London between Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and Afghan National Security Adviser Hani Atmar.
In the London parlays, a Pakistani official now disclosed, the two sides had drawn up a roadmap to put the troubled relationship between the countries on track. The roadmap includes resumption of high-level contacts between the military and intelligence levels.
Because of that understanding, Pakistan dispatched the high-powered military and intelligence delegations to Kabul in a matter of less than a week.
The next move as part of the understanding was supposed to be high level exchanges at the political level. For this purpose, the ISI chief reportedly extended an invitation to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to visit Islamabad.
However, Ghani refused to travel to Pakistan unless Islamabad takes action against what he called perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks including in Mazar-e-Sharif. His apparent snub suggested that the trust deficit between the two neighbors is very much persisting despite recent efforts.
Speaker National Assembly Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, who recently led a high-level Parliamentary delegation to Kabul, told reporters on Sunday that Ghani had not declined invitation as claimed by the Afghan President’s spokesman. He clarified that the Afghan president would visit Pakistan after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s trip to Kabul.
Ayaz’s statement suggested that the Prime Minister might travel to Afghanistan.
Diplomatic sources, however, told The Express Tribune that the visit may not take place till the situation arising out of Friday’s border clashes is normalised.