President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan stands in front of his nation's flag during a press conference at the White House, Mar. 24, 2015.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan stands in front of his nation's flag during a press conference at the White House, Mar. 24, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani’s unprecedented efforts to chart a closer course with Pakistan has unsettled critics in Afghanistan mistrustful of their neighbor, widely suspected of supporting the Taliban and other insurgents.

Ghani’s controversial outreach hit an especially sensitive nerve with reports of a memorandum of understanding between Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, and Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence.

The details of the deal, which could include

intelligence-sharing and joint training, have not been released publicly, and officials with the NDS and Ghani’s office insist it is still just a draft. But Pakistan is seen as a key player in bringing the Taliban to the peace table, and the furor over the pact underscored the challenges that remain in overcoming years of mistrust.

The controversy also comes as there are some preliminary signs that Ghani’s outreach could be paying some limited dividends.

After Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks, Pakistani security forces launched significant operations against militant groups. When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul on May 12 he declared that the two countries are fighting a common enemy.

“Pakistan has a stake in a peaceful Afghanistan,” Sharif said. “The enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan.”

And in mid-May, ISI officials facilitated a secret meeting in China between an Afghan peace envoy and several individuals linked to the Afghan Taliban, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But the ISI’s deep ties to the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan have Afghans skeptical of more cooperation crying foul.

Ghani’s predecessor, former President Hamid Karzai was intensely suspicious of Islamabad’s dealings in Afghanistan. He issued a statement calling on the government to cancel the deal.

Local media reports indicated that even NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil was against the deal with the ISI and refused to sign it.

“We have not been able to bring peace to this country for 33 years, so how can we do it with an agreement with the ISI, which has been making this nightmare in Afghanistan all along?” argued Habiba Sadat, a Parliament member from Helmand province. She said she feared that the push to repair ties with Pakistan could hurt relations with other countries such as India, Pakistan’s regional rival, which has invested heavily in Afghanistan.

The decades-long hostility between Pakistan and India — which have fought three wars since they split apart in 1947 — weighs heavily on Afghanistan. Islamabad fears that India, with its vastly superior economic power, will draw Afghanistan into its political and military orbit, thus encircling Pakistan and presenting an existential threat.

One former aide to Karzai, Aimal Faizi, criticized the deal between the NDS and ISI as “appeasement” and “a one-sided concession to Pakistan’s military establishment” that will allow Pakistan to “worm its way into Afghan security and defense establishments.”

Ghani’s “daring and politically costly gambit” with Pakistan is rooted in his decision to stake his presidency on negotiations with the Taliban, the Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote in a report released on May 26.

Facing intense fighting, government corruption, and significant dependence on foreign aid, Ghani’s efforts are still politically risky, she said.

“Although some initial movement toward starting negotiations seems to be underway, the payoff so far has been limited and Ghani’s political space is shrinking,” Felbab-Brown wrote. “But even when the negotiations do get under way in earnest, they are likely to take years to produce an outcome.”

Leaders of the NATO-led coalition have voiced cautious support for more rapport between Kabul and Islamabad, which has received billions of dollars in military aid from the United State.

“On the military side, I am for more cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan so they can go after this common enemy,” the coalition’s top commander, Gen. John Campbell, said in a meeting with reporters in Kabul on May 23. He admitted he hadn’t seen the exact details of the memorandum but added: “If that means they have to share more intelligence between NDS and ISI, I’m absolutely for that. If it’s going after a common enemy and they’re working together, why wouldn’t we be behind that?”

Other observers say that as many challenges as there may be with aligning more closely with Pakistan in the hope that Islamabad will use its influence with the Taliban, Afghan leaders cannot hope to improve the security situation ahead of peace talks widely expected later this year by maintaining the status quo.

Mohammad Younas Fakor, a political analyst in Afghanistan, said it is understandable that Afghan officials would fear that Pakistan’s intelligence service could use any information shared against the Afghans. But if Kabul wants Islamabad to cooperate with it rather than the Taliban, a closer relationship is inevitable, he argued.

“No one can trust Pakistan and its ISI because of what they have done so far,” Fakor said. “But if Pakistan is also having security problems now and there is a pressure by powerful countries, then they can be forced to cooperate against all terrorist groups equally.”

Campbell also voiced the opinion that the policies so far haven’t worked.

“If you want peace with Pakistan you can’t keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing,” Campbell said, paraphrasing Ghani’s arguments. “What President Karzai did for the past 13 years didn’t lead to peace with Pakistan, and didn’t lead to taking out the [Taliban] sanctuaries. So we can’t keep doing the same thing.”

Campbell acknowledged that Ghani appears to have expended a lot of political capital trying to mend fences with the Pakistanis, but has “not seen a lot in return.” But that’s what makes Ghani’s efforts all the more “courageous,” he said.

“We’re moving in a different direction,” the general said. “Are we there yet? No. But if we continue to have mistrust and not talking between them, what’s it going to get us? Nothing.” Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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