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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UN postcard: Afghanistan and Pakistan make their case

Leaders of both countries tried to portray their importance to the US war against terrorism, and neither was willing to accept responsibility for its failures

Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani and US president Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2017 in New York City. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani and US president Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2017 in New York City. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Over two days, the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan made their case to an influential American audience, each stating they were America’s trusted partner to counter terrorism. And both chose to do so at the Council on Foreign Relations, CFR, a stone’s throw from the UN. As opposed to last year, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani comes to the UN with more confidence and clarity as the American strategy on Afghanistan has been announced, and it is one he emphatically supports. As for the prime minister of Pakistan, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, he comes to New York less than two months after assuming his position.

Mr Abbasi addressed the CFR on Wednesday, and Mr Ghani on the following day. If anything, the two speeches only went to reinforce the distance that remains between the two countries over who holds responsibility for ending the war in Afghanistan, countering terrorism and stabilising South Asia.

Mr Ghani referred to Pakistan several times. He said peace first and foremost relied on Pakistan, and hoped it would "take my offer for comprehensive dialogue". Referring to Europe’s peace deal of 1648, he said: "We end the war first by persuading Pakistan that in South Asia we need to come to a Westphalian state."

But Pakistan’s prime minister presented a different line, stating that the solution lay with whether "Afghans can sit together and resolve their differences and defeat terrorism on their soil". Moreover, he was keen to stress that Pakistan's "relationship with the US is 70 years old. It’s not a relationship that is defined by Afghanistan alone."

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Mr Abbasi addressed accusations of Pakistan supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan saying, "Let me say that nobody wants peace more in Afghanistan than Pakistan." He went on to claim that "this perception that there are sanctuaries is absolutely not correct. We have defeated the enemy on our own territory. We have destroyed the sanctuaries". Rather, he said, "Today the cross-border incursions, if they happen, are from Afghanistan into Pakistan to attack our forces. We have suffered the terror described, and we are today implementing border management to control cross-border infiltration."

Other than the United States, the other influential country in this dynamic that was not present was India. Afghanistan’s relations with India have been developing rapidly over the past few months, but Mr Abbasi said, "We don’t foresee any political or military role for India in Afghanistan. I think it will just complicate the situation and it will not resolve anything." He repeated emphatically: "We don’t accept or see any role politically or militarily for India in Afghanistan."

Addressing the CFR three years to the day since he was elected, Mr Ghani said the most "surprising" development since becoming president has been the change on the international stage. What he called "conditions of radical uncertainty" have impacted Afghanistan and the region. That radical uncertainty struck Pakistan recently, with a scandal that led to the supreme court's removal of the prime minister.

And yet both countries need to find a path forward. Both suffer from the scourge of terrorism, and from the terrors of poverty. If the speeches in New York are any indicator, it will be a long time before either country accepts its responsibility and works toward a shared future. This was one conflict that did not make any advances in New York this week.