President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan is taking a risk most leaders would shun: He is proposing to improve Afghanistan’s contentious relations with Pakistan in the hope of paving the way toward both peace with the Taliban and regional economic cooperation. Much of the Afghan public is skeptical, because Pakistan has long treated Afghanistan like a client state. Mr. Ghani will need to show results fast.
The U.S. government should do its utmost to support him when he comes to Washington on an official visit next week. For the United States, the stakes are greater than whether President Obama can extract American troops by the end of his term without destabilizing Afghanistan.
Mr. Ghani is hoping the Pakistani government will respond to his efforts by curtailing the military capacity of the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders have sought refuge in Pakistan, and pressing them into entering negotiations with the Afghan government and eventually giving up their armed struggle. The objective is to make the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan more open and more secure and then help “connect South Asia to Central Asia,” as Mr. Ghani put it during his first trip to Pakistan last fall.
“Alone we can strive,” he said, addressing a group of Afghan and Pakistani business leaders, “Together we will thrive, and let’s thrive together.”
Afghanistan and Pakistan have been at odds over borders and other issues since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. But Mr. Ghani’s recent overtures try to address some of Pakistan’s concerns. He has suspended a request by the Afghan government to purchase heavy arms from India, of which Pakistan has long been wary. He has sent Afghan cadets to study at the Pakistani military academy. He has offered Pakistan unprecedented cooperation on military and intelligence matters.
Mr. Ghani has also offered Pakistani investors generous access to Afghanistan, including free industrial zones. In November, the Afghan and Pakistani governments agreed to a detailed list of proposals to promote trade, including the opening of 15 new crossing points along their shared border, even though Afghanistan has long disputed its legitimacy.
When I visited Pakistan last month, I was amazed at the change of attitude expressed by Afghan and Pakistani officials alike. I have worked on the region for over three decades — including as adviser to the U.N. special representative of the secretary general for Afghanistan in 2001 and as adviser to the U.S. State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009-2013 — and it was the first time I heard both sides describe the relationship in hopeful terms. The officials said the Pakistani military had told the senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban living in Pakistan that they had to talk to the Afghan government or lose their freedom to operate in Pakistan.
What’s more, these changes in Afghan-Pakistani relations are occurring against the background of a more favorable regional environment than ever before. The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan combined with the international community’s continued commitment to assisting the Afghan government, the possibility that tensions between the United States and Iran may ease if a nuclear deal succeeds, and China’s increased engagement with the region all offer the promise of concrete benefits if Afghanistan and Pakistan cooperate with each other.
China, after decades of developing exports from its coastal regions, is investing in its interior and western parts. Linking this landlocked area to foreign markets requires massive investment in infrastructure beyond China. President Xi Jinping is seeking to create a Silk Road Economic Belt through Central Asia, an economic corridor through Pakistan and a maritime Silk Road through the Indian Ocean.
To support this new growth strategy, Beijing is encouraging ethnic Chinese workers and professionals to resettle in western China. This has created tensions between the government and the indigenous Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang, and generated inter-ethnic clashes and terrorist incidents. Uighur militants have gone to fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, and the Chinese government has grown increasingly concerned that militancy in Afghanistan threatens its internal security.
As a result, China has made clear to its close friend and ally Pakistan that it opposes seeing the Taliban rule Afghanistan again and instead favors a political settlement under which the Taliban would demobilize and integrate into the political mainstream. Since last fall the Chinese government has held several meetings with Taliban officials urging them to negotiate, and has reportedly offered China as a venue for talks.
The U.S. government, for its part, has already taken steps to facilitate negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In addition to announcing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, it has removed the names of some Taliban leaders from a Bush administration-era blacklist. It has supported differentiating the U.N. sanctions that apply to Al Qaeda from those that apply to the Taliban, so as to allow the lifting of travel bans on members of the Taliban. Washington has also transferred some Taliban leaders from the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The U.S. government must further strengthen Mr. Ghani’s negotiating position. For example, it could transfer to the Afghan government the Afghan detainees still held at Guantánamo. Mr. Ghani has asked the Chinese and U.S. governments to cooperate on Afghanistan, and they have started to do so through embryonic joint assistance programs and increased diplomatic coordination. Washington should do more still, including publicly committing to take account of China’s plans in the region as it develops its own regional infrastructure project, the New Silk Road initiative, to better connect Afghanistan to Central Asia, Pakistan and India.
Mr. Ghani’s recent diplomatic overtures — toward the Taliban, Pakistan and China — are a chance for Washington finally to engage with Afghanistan not just as a source of threats, but also as a land of opportunities.
Barnett R. Rubin is a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and the author of Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror.