Correction appended: Aug. 20, 2013, 11:17 p.m. E.T.
Soccer fans are getting ready to pack the stands in Kabul today as the Afghan national team prepares to play its first home game in over 10 years against Pakistan. It’s also the first time that the two neighboring teams have gone head to head in more than 30 years. “I am confident that the first international game after more than three decades will open the door for other countries to visit Afghanistan and to play this fantastic game,” Karamudeen Karim, chairman of the Afghan Football Federation, said in a statement on the Afghan Premier League website.
Indeed, hopes for healing powers of the pitch are running high. Karim’s statement also voiced the hope that the match would “effectively aid in easing tensions between the countries.”
That theory will be put to the test soon enough when Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits Pakistan next week to try and get peace talks with the Taliban back on track ahead of the pullout of foreign troops from Afghanistan next year. Members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, the body formed by Karzai in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban on the government’s behalf, are expected to join him for the visit.
The latest iteration of the on-and-off-again peace process stalled in June after the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, under the name and flag of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the same name the group used during its 1996–2001 rule of Afghanistan. Taking umbrage at the Taliban’s attempts to portray itself as a government in exile, Karzai refused to allow talks to move forward. For their part, the Taliban have long been loath to negotiate with Karzai or his Peace Council, regarding both as illegitimate. Nobody, including the U.S., has found a way around the impasse.
As one of three nations that officially recognized the Taliban government during its rule, Pakistan is seen as crucial to keeping the Taliban on board in the peace process. “If there is any party that the Afghan Taliban considers acceptable, it’s Pakistan,” says Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistani brigadier.
(PHOTOS: In the Taliban’s Heartland)
Many in Afghanistan believe the relationship is even closer, suspecting Pakistan of covertly supporting the Taliban insurgency for years. “Negotiations with the Taliban and the restoration of peace in Afghanistan are impossible if Pakistan continues its interference into the internal affairs of Afghanistan,” Janan Mosazai, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at an Aug. 18 press conference, according to Afghanistan’s Tolo News. “If Pakistan stops meddling in our affairs today, peace would be restored tomorrow.”
Others point out that Pakistan doesn’t exactly have a lot to gain from becoming enmeshed in Afghanistan’s problems. A new war after foreign troops leave next year might empower the militant groups in Pakistan’s own backyard and would therefore not be in Islamabad’s interest, Qadir says. “The last thing that Pakistan would like is a return to power of the Taliban.”
Will Karzai’s visit next week help untangle the long-standing mutual suspicions enough to move the peace process forward? Like today’s game, it may amount to little more than “an attempt to kiss and make up,” in Qadir’s words. Sports enthusiasts in Kabul this afternoon ought to hope for a clean match with few fouls and plenty of handshakes at the end.
An earlier version of the headline with this article misstated how long it has been since Afghanistan and Pakistan played each other in a soccer match. They have not played each other in three decades, not a decade.