For the first time, Afghanistan has sent members of its security forces for training in neighboring Pakistan.
The 18-month training program at a military facility in the northwestern Pakistani city of Abbottabad involves only six Afghan army cadets, but is a sign of increased cooperation between the two countries under new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
During former President Hamid Karzai’s administration, Afghanistan repeatedly denied Pakistan’s requests for closer cross-border military cooperation. Distrust between the neighbors ran deep, with Afghanistan accusing Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and other militant groups while Pakistan complained that Afghanistan did not stop cross-border attacks.
Ghani’s decision has been met with skepticism at home, with many Afghans saying it is too soon to reach out to Pakistan. Afghanistan has also granted Pakistan permission to interrogate some extremist fighters captured by Afghan forces.
Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said Pakistanis must first “commit themselves to stop training the Taliban” before military cooperation is expanded. He said the step could prove “dangerous and shortsighted.”
In recent months, Pakistan has said it would crack down on all militant groups operating in its territory. Since a December raid on an army-run school that killed 132 children and caused shock around the world, Pakistan has been under growing pressure to end a policy under which it tacitly sheltered some extremist groups that did not attack the Pakistani state.
Pakistan has long sought deeper ties with the Afghan military as a way to counter the influence of India, which already trains a small number of Afghan forces. Ghani has sought to normalize relations with Pakistan in an effort to restart peace talks with the Taliban.
Few details on the military training, which began Jan. 5, have been made public.
Saleh said that many issues between the countries have yet to be resolved, including border security and counter-terrorism operations. For years, the eastern provinces of Afghanistan have been subjected to shelling, which residents and officials say comes from the Pakistani side of the border.
Two women in Kunar province were killed Oct. 31 when 11 artillery shells were fired from Pakistan, officials said. From 2012 to 2014, local officials reported that about 5,000 rockets were fired on the province from inside Pakistan.
Under Karzai, the Afghan government twice, in 2012 and 2014, threatened to raise the matter with the United Nations Security Council.
Afghans have never hidden their suspicion of Pakistan, but the training comes at a time when Pakistani officials and citizens have become increasingly distrustful of the more than 2 million Afghan refugees on Pakistani soil.
The International Organization for Migration has reported more than 22,000 undocumented Afghan migrants fleeing Pakistan, citing increased persecution after the army school massacre. The attack in the city of Peshawar was carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, a domestic insurgent organization, but international officials say many Pakistanis have taken out their anger on foreigners.
On Jan. 17, Afghan officials said they arrested five men near the Pakistani border, all foreigners, on suspicion of involvement in the Peshawar attack.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Islamabad, Janan Mosazai, said the training was an “important step in both countries’ efforts to strengthen, broaden and deepen security and particularly military-to-military relations and cooperations in all areas.”
Graeme Smith, Kabul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said such military exchanges were a “textbook way of building confidence between security forces” that are both facing insurgencies on their soil.
“There’s almost zero trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan military forces at the moment, and that urgently needs to improve,” Smith said.
Smith said Ghani was preparing for a future in which U.S.-led international forces -- which have withdrawn most of their troops -- will no longer be around to support the Afghan army and police. The remaining 13,000 U.S. troops are expected to withdraw by the end of 2016, although President Obama’s nominee for Defense secretary, Ashton Carter, has suggested that decision could be reevaluated.
“Ghani knows that his presidency may extend into years when the NATO troops are not remaining in sufficient numbers to keep the insurgency at bay,” Smith said. “He needs to make diplomatic moves to reduce the conflict.”
Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.