An intelligence-sharing pact with Pakistan has sparked anger and confusion in neighboring Afghanistan and fresh criticism of President Ashraf Ghani's approach to ending the conflict with Taliban insurgents.
The deal between Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security and Pakistan's military-run spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, is strongly opposed by many Afghans and former officials who have long accused Pakistan of supporting insurgents battling the government in Kabul.
The details of the pact have not been announced publicly. However, after media reports said it called for the ISI to train and equip Afghan intelligence personnel, an outcry prompted the Afghan spy agency to issue a statement over the weekend saying the agreement would be subject to a "five-stage review process" by top officials. They include Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in the national unity government, who said he was not consulted on the final version.
The NDS said the review would ensure the pact was "in the best interest of the Afghan people." A spokesman for Ghani said the agreement was still "in draft form" but denied that it allowed for training and equipping by Pakistan.
Since taking office in September, Ghani has pursued closer ties with Pakistan, sending Afghan cadets there for military training and allowing Pakistan permission to interrogate captured militants. Ghani argues that enlisting support from Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is based, is key to battling militant threats in the region and launching peace talks with the insurgents.
"These threats do not have passports; these require collective efforts," Ghani said at a news conference this month.
In Pakistan, officials have said the two countries would increase cooperation in counter-terrorism operations and questioning of terrorism suspects. A spokesman for the Pakistani foreign ministry, Qazi Khalilullah, said the pact will "be helpful in combating terrorism."
"We have cooperation with Afghanistan in a number of fields and intelligence is one of them," Khalilullah said.
A former Pakistani intelligence official, Muhammad Ishaq, said the pact would not end years of acrimony between the two agencies but signaled that Ghani was serious about improving bilateral ties.
"The agreement is signed under political pressure from the Afghan president's office," Ishaq said. "This indicates that ice-melting has started between the two neighbors on the highest level."
U.S. officials have expressed guarded optimism about the deal, reflecting the diminishing American military presence in Afghanistan after more than 13 years of conflict. The Obama administration has repeatedly called on Pakistan to do more to combat militants based on its soil.
A months-long military offensive has routed some militant groups from Pakistan's northern tribal belt. One Pakistani official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Pakistani envoys had privately called on Taliban leaders to call off an ongoing military offensive and focus on peace talks.
But with Taliban forces making advances in northern and eastern parts of the country, many Afghans remain deeply skeptical of Pakistan's commitment to peace.
At least 23 members of the Afghan security forces and a civilian were killed in attacks over the last two days in southern and eastern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday. The deadliest came in the Nawzad district of the southern province of Helmand, where Taliban assaults left 14 police officers and seven members of the Afghan army dead, the Pajhwok news service reported.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was sharply critical of Pakistan during his 13 years in office, called on the Ghani-led national unity government to scrap the agreement, saying it was "against the national interest."
Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, an influential lawmaker and former militia commander, said the Afghan people were not consulted on the pact, which he said would give "more opportunities to Pakistan to continue its illegal interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs."
In a bid to quell public anger over the deal, a spokesman for Ghani, Ajmal Obaid Abidy, said the two intelligence agencies had signed several previous agreements from 2007 to 2010. But muddying matters further, the Afghan intelligence chief at the time, Amarullah Saleh, denied that account in an interview, saying: "I never signed anything with the ISI."
Mojtaba, a 22-year-old painter in Kabul who said he feels less safe now than three months ago, welcomed the government's focus on security matters but was wary of placing too much faith in Islamabad.
"When has Pakistan ever shown itself to be a friend to Afghanistan?" he asked.