Afghanistan, Pakistan Forge Closer Ties

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Quite separate from the U.S. military and diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan, but equally as important, is the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Renee Montagne talks with Shuja Nawaz about how that relationship has changed, and what it means for U.S. efforts in the region. Nawaz is Director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council of the United States.


One of the biggest grievances Afghanistan has against its neighbor Pakistan is that Pakistan's spy service helped create and long supported the Taliban, and Pakistan is still believed to have secret links to some militants. But the relations between the two countries have been warming of late, and we asked analyst Shuja Nawaz into our studio to find out why. He follows the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship closely.

Good morning.

Mr. SHUJA NAWAZ (Analyst, Author): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: In the early years of the war, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and then the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, they did not get along. In fact, sometimes it seems as if they could hardly stand each other. Now, Pakistani officials regularly visit Karzai and visit the government of Afghanistan and may even be having secret talks between the two governments. What has changed?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think they realize that the United States and the coalition will be leaving, and they realize that they will remain in the neighborhood, and therefore it's important for them to have a relationship. This doesn't mean that they have completely eliminated decades of mistrust between the two countries. But tremendous amount of public opinion inside Afghanistan is very anti-Pakistan. But it's clear that Pakistan wants very much either a neutral or a friendly Afghan government, and the Pakistani perception is fed by very powerful Indian economic and political presence inside Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: You know, it's understandable why Pakistan would want to help out Afghanistan because by being friendly, it stands to have more influence in its neighbor, Afghanistan. But there are those who say that Afghan President Karzai's interest here is born of desperation. He himself is reported to have said that he doesn't think that NATO and the U.S. will win the war, and that he's looking for allies where he can find them. And if that's Pakistan, a country that he, himself has long had antipathy for, then so be it.

Mr. NAWAZ: Well, President Karzai, during his years in exile, did spend time in Pakistan. So it did provide him safe haven at one time. However, I think it's much more than just the political survival and strengthening of his own government that's at stake. I think there are underlying, important economic issues for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A stable Afghanistan would allow Afghanistan and Pakistan to open much more trade, and also to open links with Central Asia. And there is always still the possibility that once India and Pakistan reach some kind of an entente on their border, that there would be links with India which would allow Afghanistan and Pakistan to benefit from that transit trade and the fees associated with it.

MONTAGNE: Although that sounds logical what you're saying, but Pakistan's rivalry with India, might that not prevent it from allowing what seems like a positive all-around from actually happening?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think there is increasingly an awareness that this is not to be seen as a zero-sum game, that there would be advantages to all the players by opening borders. That is behind some of the recent discussions that have taken place. So some baby steps, but in the right direction.

MONTAGNE: In what ways might this moving closer together of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in what ways might it backfire?

Mr. NAWAZ: The worst case scenario is that the more radical militant groups reach Kabul and manage to displace the government at some point. The possibility then of an effect on the border regions of Pakistan where they would want to export their ideology and their militancy would then increase tremendously.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, whichever way it goes, it does seem as if Pakistan's relationship is growing stronger with Afghanistan. How do you see that affecting the other big player in the region, the U.S.?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think it's looking at it as a positive development if the Afghans and Pakistanis start looking after things in their own neighborhood, to allow their people a greater say in government, to have much more open government, and to meet their needs. That's probably the best way of fighting militancy and terrorism.

But centralizing power, creating autocratic systems of government is really moving in the wrong direction. So The United States' great interest is to have stable, developing, political entities, and the U.S. should do much more than it's been doing, particularly in Pakistan, to help that.

MONTAGNE: Shuja Nawaz is the director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center.

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