Optimism in the air between Pakistan and Afghanistan

The new government of Imran Khan has taken its first step towards enunciating its Afghanistan strategy. In this regard Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Afghanistan in his first visit outside the country. In his one-on-one meeting with the Afghan president, bilateral relations as well as matters relating to regional peace and security were discussed. FM Qureshi also held delegation-level talks with the Afghan side during which a range of issues concerning bilateral relations came under discussion. The foreign minister separately met his Afghan counterpart, Salahuddin Rabbani. Delegations of both sides were present during the meeting. In early August, Pakistan and Afghanistan held inaugural meetings of the five Working Groups (WGs) under the Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) in Kabul. The Afghan delegation was led by Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai and the Pakistani side by Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua. According to the Foreign Office, both sides assessed prospects for the APAPPS forum that covers all areas of mutual interest, including counter-terrorism and security, peace and reconciliation, bilateral trade and transit, connectivity, Afghan refugees’ repatriation and promoting people to people contacts.

At the heart of the difficult problems between the two neighboring states, Pakistan and Afghanistan, lay historical factors and circumstances that arose in the colonial era. If Afghanistan and Pakistan are to stabilise their relationship and bring peace to the region, it is in the security and peace arena that cooperation will be key. Afghanistan is looking towards Pakistan to help nudge the Afghan Taliban towards dialogue, while Pakistan is looking towards Afghanistan to eliminate anti-Pakistan militant sanctuaries in that country. “Bilateral relations with certain friendly countries and issues relating to security came under discussion during the meeting,” said a brief statement issued after the meeting.

The issues and problems between Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot be simply described as bilateral interaction. This relationship has become so complex over the years that it now touches all the major aspects of Pakistan’s foreign policy and external and internal security. The political and security fallout of the internal strife in Afghanistan impacts not only Pakistan but it also causes problems for several countries in the neighbourhood and beyond. Some countries use this issue to pursue their regional agendas or use it to, among other things, for Pakistan bashing. Pakistan United States and Afghanistan need to evolve a shared approach to deal with terrorism in and around Afghanistan through a regular dialogue that equally accommodates their security concerns. Public denunciation of Pakistan by the US or American public statements on the time frame for Pakistan to take action against the terrorist elements identified by the US are not going to be helpful. Prime Minister Imran Khan also emphasised to have peace in neighbouring Afghanistan. Khan’s first foreign policy challenge as prime minister, therefore, is regarding engagement with Kabul to discuss how to take forward a political process dogged both by the history of antagonism between the neighbours and the contradictory geopolitical interests of rival global and regional powers. As Pakistan’s new prime minister, Khan has the opportunity to energise a peace process which could bring about an end to the “endless war” in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan are already working together for the common objectives of eradicating terrorism, achieving peace and stability, and developing the region. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called Imran Khan on July 29, congratulated him on his victory and invited him to visit Kabul. “We both agreed to overcome the past and to lay a new foundation for a prosperous political, social and economic future of both countries Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Ghani tweeted after their conversation.

The most important aspect is to avoid blame game and look to the positives. Pak Afghan relations have witnessed numerous ups and downs. Recently Pakistanis as well as the Afghan analysts have declared the political developments in Pakistan as positive. Let us hope, the charismatic PM of Pakistan, Imran Khan is able to bring peace in the region. The new Pakistani government could be a constructive force for peace in Afghanistan while working successfully with the United States and Kabul, and draw on support from other regional actors like China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Renewing its approach to bring peace to Afghanistan, Trump Administration has vowed to negotiate with Taliban signaling green to reduce, or even eliminate, its military presence in the country. Interestingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan has also expressed support for such a strategy and has been calling for talks with Taliban for several years.

Pakistani government and public welcomed the Afghan refugees with open arms. The government settled them mainly on the lands bordering Afghanistan, owned by the local community, and the locals provided them with basic needs. The Government of Pakistan took several measures to ensure the provision of safety, shelter and basic amenities for the Afghan refugees. The government set up more than five hundred schools for the Afghan children. Pakistan has done a lot for refugees, and the whole world acknowledges the sacrifices rendered by Pakistan and its people. Certainly, a goodwill and soft corner is there in the hearts of Afghan refugees. This is the real ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan. The foreign minister during his visit met Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah and held delegation-level talks with his Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani. Mr Qureshi conveyed to the Afghan leadership that the new government in Islamabad attached importance to its relations with Afghanistan and would work towards further deepening cooperation in the fields of trade, development and connectivity. “The visit provided an opportunity to set out the contours of the new government’s future engagement with Afghanistan to build mutually beneficial relationship and enhance cooperation between the two countries,” added a Foreign Office statement issued after the meeting. In the context of enhancing trade between the two countries, Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan had decided to waive off regulatory duty on imports from Afghanistan. It was for this reason, he added, Afghan exports to Pakistan recorded substantial increase of 118 per cent in 2018. He stated that Pakistan would fast-track standardisation and automation of custom procedures as well as upgrade of infrastructure at crossing points between the two countries.

Published in Melange Intl. Magazine in October 2018.


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