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Do Pakistan And Afghanistan Really Trust Each Other?

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (right) and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, at a previous meeting in Islamabad in September
Today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Islamabad on a mission to speed up the peace process in Afghanistan and to strengthen his country's relationship with Pakistan.

During his first visit to Pakistan since the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Karzai will participate in the inaugural meeting of the bilateral peace commission chaired by the presidents of the two neighbors. Mohammad Omar Daudzai, Karzai's confidant and ambassador in Islamabad, says that his president wants the two quarreling countries to move beyond confidence-building and begin taking concrete steps forward.

Insiders say that the new commission might meet the fate of previous efforts, when nice words and rhetoric about "brotherhood" between the two countries neither delivered improved security nor better economic prospects for their impoverished populations. In the past, Karzai called Pakistan and Afghanistan "conjoined twins," but for years, he has also urged international forces to look for terrorists where they have sanctuaries -- a thinly veiled reference to Pakistan -- something he repeated after bin Laden was killed last month in Abbottabad.

The two countries have recently made progress on implementing a new trade-transit deal. Increased cooperation like this between the two can spur regional cooperation across South Asia and Central Asia. But major disagreements, including those predating the 33-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, remain unresolved and have become toxic to security and economic advancement.

Afghan governments have never recognized the Durand Line, which bisects ethnic Pashtun lands, as an official international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite Islamabad's bankrolling of the hard-line movement, even the Taliban regime shunned efforts to get them to sign off on recognizing the border in the 1990s. Many Afghans, including senior members of Karzai's administration, believe that Pakistan is an artificial construct and will one day dissolve in the face of the multiple conflicts within its society.

Pakistan's Afghan policy, on the other hand, has been the exclusive domain of military generals for the past three decades. Even before that, Islamabad promoted Afghan Islamism to counter irredentist claims by secular Afghan nationalists and their allies among Pashtun and Balochi ethnic movements inside Pakistan. In the view of veteran observers, Islamabad is ready to sacrifice an arm and a leg in the form of tolerating a domestic Taliban insurgency to keep alive the hopes of friendly Afghan Islamic forces of recapturing Kabul in the aftermath of NATO's withdrawal.

In the 1990s, Pakistani generals openly advocated the doctrine of "strategic depth," which many Afghans -- including Karzai -- viewed as an effort to occupy and annex their country.

In recent years, the Pakistani military has been anxious over the expanding presence of its archrival India in the form of aid and consulates beyond its western mountain reaches. It is equally nervous about American intentions in Afghanistan and is wary of Kabul's effort to directly reach out to the Afghan Taliban whose leadership uses Pakistani territory as a refuge.

It would be simplistic to expect Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, to resolve all these problems. In fact, they lack the power and resources to implement meaningful domestic reforms or to pull off a major regional breakthrough.

The key to addressing the Afghanistan-Pakistan impasse is still in the hands of the Pakistani military, which might yet reorient its domestic role and Afghan policy if it sees the right signals coming out of Washington and New Delhi. For now, it is busy carving out alternative relationships with China and Iran, the latter which it considered a regional competitor until very recently.

-- Abubakar Siddique