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Navigating the Afghan challenge

BY CH AMANAT ALI
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s recent day-long trip to Kabul represented a serious and well-thought-out effort to reach out to the Afghan leadership with an aim to stop relations between both the countries from further deteriorating. The talks he held with President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah resulted in putting into operation five working groups supposed to achieve the objectives of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS).

The key principles agreed upon between the two sides pertained to Pakistan’s unequivocal support to the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process; joint action against fugitives and undesirable elements that threaten security of either of the countries; denial of use of territory by any group or network or country for anti-state activities against either country; commitment to avoid territorial and aerial violations; use of APAPPS mechanism for resolving mutual contentions and complaints ; avoiding public blame-game; and putting in place a joint supervision, coordination and confirmation mechanism for realisation of the agreed actions.

Prime Minister Abbasi’s trip came about as a result of Pakistan’s unstinted and vocal support to President Ghani’s peace offer to the Taliban made a month ago. While it may not be logical to pin high hopes on a single meeting, the fact remains that it did provide a long overdue opening to both the neighbours to enter into a serious, broad-based and result-oriented dialogue. In what could be described as a sensible move, the Pakistani leader reached out to a cross-section of people dominating the Afghan political opinion to underscore Pakistan’s commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. As a goodwill gesture, he also announced a gift of 40,000 tons of wheat for them and waived the additional regulatory duty on Afghan exports to Pakistan.

The visit and subsequent developments assume significance considering the fact that both Pakistan and Afghanistan will be going to the polls this year and the tone they set will have a bearing on the policies of the governments that will be formed in Islamabad and Kabul respectively. The last 15 years have witnessed a gradual deterioration of relations between the two Muslim countries. Over the period, they have failed to evolve a mechanism to manage the challenges of bilateral relations without needing to go public with their respective grievances against each other. The Afghans view Pakistan as the least friendly country, whereas the Pakistanis have cogent reasons to assume that Kabul is the second least friendly country towards Pakistan after India.

While Islamabad has been accused of looking at Afghanistan through the Indian prism, the geo-strategic environment prevailing in South Asia and beyond adds weight to Islamabad’s concerns which are informed by history. The repeated postponement of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Transit Trade Coordination Authority’s meeting stands explained by Kabul’s persistent demand for Pakistan to give India a place on the table – something that the bilateral nature of the framework does not account for. The mutual recriminations have caused both the countries to miss massive opportunities of development. The two have also failed to emerge as players capable of reshaping the regional socio-economic landscape. Pakistan’s dream of becoming a ‘gateway to Central Asia’ is dependent on peace and stability in Afghanistan, a fact articulated many a time by both civil and military leaderships of Pakistan.

In the same way, Afghanistan will also not be able to realise its dream of becoming the land-bridge between Central and South Asia. This is where geography plays a vital role in shaping the destiny of not just the two countries but also the region in which they are located. The implementation of President Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative – of which CPEC is a flagship project aiming to acquire greater regional connectivity and trade – has highlighted the role of geo-economics in redefining the nature, scope and direction of inter-state relations. China has a trade volume of above $80 billion with India, despite the fact that India has signed onto the American script of containing China. Pakistan and Afghanistan will allow amazing opportunities of development to slip through their hands if they do not willingly replace or better still complement the geo-strategic nature of their relations with geo-economics. The economic dividend to be reaped by both the countries will help create sustainable ‘peace constituencies’.

However, the quest for a cordial bilateral relationship based on the prospect of economic fruits cannot be undertaken without addressing some fundamental issues that have bedevilled relations between the two countries. This calls for articulating a clear policy. No real headway, vis-a-vis the goal for bilateral relations to be robust and cordial, is possible until both the countries do away with their misperceptions and create an environment of trust. It is important to change the point of reference from where Pakistan and Afghanistan look at and reach out to each other. The ground of goodwill so prepared will provide the necessary momentum to take the engagement forward.

Pakistan’s civil and military leadership are on the same page when it comes to spearheading efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan. Each time Pakistan’s prime minister or army chief visited Kabul, they expressed the desire to have a candid but meaningful conversation on a whole range of contentious issues. The need for such a dialogue has to stem from the inside, keeping in view the well-being of people of both the countries. No other country can persuade them to talk to each other.

This brings us to the importance of streamlining issues which will help lessen the trust deficit and create a space to move from relatively easier issues to more complex ones. The following is instructive in this regard: Pakistan has long been apprehensive of the increasing Indian footprint in Afghanistan. There is enough evidence of Indian intelligence agencies meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs, particularly in fomenting insurgency in Balochistan. These fears and apprehensions become real when India makes no bones about its intentions to throw spanners in the works of CPEC. Pakistan also thinks that the Indian intelligence has been in cahoots with the TTP to destabilise Pakistan.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, has accused Pakistan of secretly supporting the Afghan Taliban and has alleged that Pakistan has failed to eliminate the Haqqani Network from its soil. However, Pakistan also claims to have proof about the TTP operating from the Afghan soil to harm Pakistan’s interests. Both countries have failed to pay enough attention to matters related to trade and transit. They need each other to optimally benefit from their geographical location. Hence, interdependent policies need to be worked out to bring about significant improvements in bilateral trade and resolve current transit issues.

While Pakistan has been playing host to millions of Afghan refugees since the 1980s, it has a reason to want to repatriate them to their homeland as their continued stay has multiplied the level of security challenge for the country. This, in turn, necessitates a modicum of stability and improvement in law and order in Afghanistan coupled with the willingness of the Afghan government to take the refugees back. There has been scepticism on Kabul’s part regarding the increased surveillance of refugees and their treatment by police.

This is certainly not the exhaustive list of issues but it comprises of the most important ones. A beginning needs to be made in approaching them in a structured and measured manner. One way of helping the process is to broaden the interaction by including civil society, media persons, parliamentarians, academia, students and women in addition to the relevant government officials. The joint communiqué issued at the end of PM Abbasi’s visit promises to help conduct a much needed conversation on substantive issues but the taste of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

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