Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has arrived for his first state visit to neighbouring Pakistan, seeking to improve ties that are crucial to his hopes of reviving Taliban peace talks.
Ghani and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are expected to attend a cricket match between the two countries in Islamabad on Saturday, officials said, in a public demonstration of better relations despite fraught cross-border tensions.
Both nations accuse each other of allowing armed fighters to shelter in the border regions and launch attacks that threaten regional stability.
But diplomats say that Ghani’s presidency, which started in September, presents a major opportunity at a time when US-led NATO troops are withdrawing from the fight against the Taliban.
“Both sides are very interested in seizing the opportunity presented by the political transition,” US ambassador in Islamabad Richard Olson said this week.
“There is quite genuinely a basis for a new relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both sides are aware of this historical moment and making efforts to seize it.”
Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognise the hardline Taliban regime that ruled Kabul from 1996 until 2001 when it was deposed by a US-led international military coalition.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai routinely accused Pakistan of continuing to fuel the Taliban insurgency to destabilise his country, a charge Islamabad denies.
The long-standing tensions between the two countries were highlighted last week when a US Pentagon report said Pakistan continues to use “proxy forces” to destabilise Afghanistan.
Ghani, who emerged as president after a long dispute over fraud-mired elections, has said that seeking peace is his first priority after decades of conflict in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, which dismissed the Afghan election as a US plot, has often said it will fight on until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan.
About 12,500 US-led troops will stay on into next year on a NATO training and support mission.
Karzai also pursued peace talks with the insurgents, but preliminary efforts collapsed last year.
Pakistan has been battling Islamist groups in its semi-autonomous tribal belt since 2004, and the army launched a major offensive in the north-west border area in June. Al Jazeera