By Jon Boone
Efforts to crush Pakistani militants have further undermined security in Afghanistan as growing numbers of terrorists have entered the country, the Afghan president said on Wednesday at a major regional summit in Islamabad on the future of his country.
Ashraf Ghani made the pointed comments during a Heart of Asia gathering of more than 31 countries, which was also notable for attracting the foreign minister of India – which is also deeply distrustful of Pakistan’s relations with militant groups.
The Afghan president said operations against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in the wake of last year’s killing of more than 130 schoolchildren in the city of Peshawar had created “unintended consequences” and additional security challenges for his country.
He said Afghan special forces had been forced to launch more than 40 operations against the TTP and that the country was now a hotbed of international jihadis. “Al-Qaida, Daesh [Isis] and terrorists from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Middle East are all, unfortunately, present on our soil,” he said.
Afghanistan’s enduring security crisis was highlighted once again on the eve of Ghani’s arrival in Islamabad when dozens were killed during a Taliban attack on Kandahar airport, a major civilian and military hub in the country’s south. The upsurge of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan that followed the revelation in late July that the movement’s former leader, Mullah Omar, had died more than two years before has proved a major setback to efforts by Ghani to improve ties with Pakistan.
He had hoped, that in return for a series of concessions, Islamabad would use its influence to broker talks with Taliban representatives. But the succession dispute within the Taliban triggered by news of Omar’s death ensured only one such meeting was ever held. The spike in insurgent attacks heaped pressure on Ghani not to continue engaging with an eastern neighbour many Afghans believe supports the rebels.
Despite the difficulties there were strong hints from officials of a push to restart talks with insurgent leaders soon. The US deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the Afghan and Pakistani leaders renewed their commitment to an “Afghan owned and Afghan led” process during a meeting with US and Chinese diplomats.
Blinken said the first meeting between Afghan officials and authorised Taliban representatives in the hill town of Murree on July 8 had been a “very significant development” and there was a “clear desire to return to that process”.
Salahuddin Rabbani, the Afghan foreign minster, said he hoped to see
“positive moves in the coming weeks” on peace talks.
Doubts had persisted until the last few days over whether Ghani and the Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, would attend a diplomatic conference that was first held in Turkey in 2011 in a bid to find regional solutions to Afghanistan’s security crisis.
But Swaraj’s arrival at Islamabad airport on Tuesday night marked the highest-level Indian visitor since 2012 and came amid a long period of frosty relations between the two sides.
It was time India and Pakistan displayed “the maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation”, Swaraj told the conference.
“The entire world is waiting and rooting for a change. Let us not disappoint them.”
There have been few high-profile meetings between Pakistani and Indian officials after the Indian government made clear it was only prepared to discuss terrorism-related issues with Pakistan and not the contested region of Kashmir. Aziz Ahmed Khan, a former Pakistani ambassador to both Kabul and New Delhi, said there was now a “ray of hope” for improved relations with India.
However, bitter experience meant “you should never be overly enthusiastic because you never know where the next stumbling block will come”.
Khan doubted there would be an immediate resumption of Pakistani-brokered talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, saying there now needed to be an “intra-Taliban reconciliation process” between the splintered insurgent movement.
“Ashraf Ghani probably did have reason to be upset with us so the fact that he has come here and everyone has talked at the highest level is something,” he said.