Cousin Afghanistan (VI) | Saleem Safi


Afghanistan is neither our brother – like China, Saudi Arabia or Turkey – nor our bitter enemy – like India. Pakistan should not even dream or try to make the country its brother.

Afghanistan is, in fact, Pakistan’s tarbor (first cousin) and should be treated accordingly. As its first cousin, Afghanistan will sometimes tease Pakistan by standing on the sides of its enemies. But it will neither become a deadly enemy nor involve itself in a war with Pakistan. The chaotic internal situation and the extent of relative backwardness will compel Kabul to overreact in sheer frustration. Pakistan, a relatively prosperous cousin, will need to exercise great caution and patiently deals with its neighbour.

First off, Pakistan should not deal with Afghanistan as it deals with its relatively stable and powerful neighbours, such as India and Iran. If Kabul fails to fulfil Islamabad’s expectation, it should be judged within the larger context and influence of external lobbies. The decades-long instability has made Afghanistan dependent on external powers and their lobbies sometimes hamper Kabul’s decision-making power.

Pakistan should appoint a special representative for Afghanistan who must either be a retired military general or a civilian who is in the good books of the security establishment. The office of the special representative should be used for effective coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office, GHQ, ISI, Foreign Office and other concerned institutions. It should be tasked with giving a specific direction to our Afghan policy. Under this strategy, different institutions may work on different directions but the state’s policy will, at least, be geared towards one direction.

Afghanistan should also be assured that Pakistan will deliver wholeheartedly on the issue of the Taliban. However, this assurance must be given on the condition that Kabul will address Pakistan’s concerns. A full roadmap needs to be implemented on a step-by-step basis and under high secrecy. If China becomes a guarantor of the whole process, it will be highly productive.

Besides the activities of RAW and the TTP, the bargain between Kabul and Islamabad should also focus on Afghanistan’s support in border management and the repatriation of Afghan refugees.

Pakistan can also try and should pursue a policy of fostering soft instead of hard proxies. Pakistan should divert all the resources and concentrate on the political forces of Afghanistan. Islamabad should support Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s new deal with Kabul and encourage the unity of all factions of the Hizb-e-Islami.

Pakistan needs to focus on strengthening ties with the political force that comes into power in Afghanistan instead of bringing a new group to the corridors of powers. By treating all groups and leaders equally, Islamabad will gain credibility as an honest friend. Political factions in Afghanistan can easily become friends or foes. If Pakistan avoids adopting a policy of favouritism and support for any specific group, it would not be hard for it to make them friends.

The Afghan refugees are the best soft proxies. Till the refugees are living in Pakistan, they should be treated with respect and ensured that they will be repatriated with dignity.

The print, electronic and social media in Afghanistan – under the direct influence of the US, Iran and India – is spreading poisonous propaganda against Pakistan. There is no pro-Pakistan channel or newspapers in Afghanistan. Pakistan should focus on this medium and find ways to make and mould opinions. Like India and Iran, Pakistan should also dub its dramas in Pashto and Persian languages and provide them free of charge to TV channels in Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistan Television (PTV) has a huge collection of Pashto dramas which should be provided free of charge to TV channels in Afghanistan. It would also be productive if Pashto dramas and films were produced in the Afghan context. PTV World should telecast standard and objective news, current affairs programmes and entertainment in Pashto and Persian.

Music can play a significant role in bridging the gulf between the two neighbours. Pashto singers in Pakistan – such as Sardar Ali Takkar, Haroon Bacha, Karan Khan and Zeek Afridi – have a huge fan-following in Afghanistan. Similarly, Afghan singers such as Naghma, Baryalai Samadi, Farhad Darya and Nashenas are popular in Pakistan. These messengers of peace should be united and their work should be utilised to bring the two countries closers.

The views of ex-army personnel are usually perceived in Afghanistan as the official stance of the Pakistan Army. Pakistan should either stop or regularise them to ensure that their views do not widen the gulf between both countries.

Afghanistan, as a landlocked country, is dependent on Pakistan for its trade with the outside world. Trade is the best asset to maintain Pakistan’s influence and relevance in Afghanistan. But unfortunately, this asset has been ignored by Pakistan. Pakistan’s government has a limited role in the current trade volume. Instead of encouraging bilateral trade, hurdles are being created from Karachi to Torkham for traders and truck drivers. A special trade concession of 10 years – akin to measures adopted in Iran – should be given to encourage bilateral trade.

Health and education are the other important areas for which Afghanistan look towards Pakistan. But, for some time, Pakistan has been discouraging smooth travel for Afghans along the border. As a result, India has opened doors for Afghanistan by easing travel restriction and providing affordable health facilities and quality educational opportunities. Islamabad should focus on adopting a similar policy and should ensure visa facilities to Afghans at Pakistan’s mission in Afghanistan. Those Afghan refugees who possess special computerised cards issued by Nadra should be exempted from visa conditions and allowed entry and exit facilities on the basis of their computerised cards.

There are traditionally two types of people in Pakistan whose services have been utilised on the Afghan front: religious leaders and Pakhtun nationalists. But the services offered by both have proved to be useless in resolving the problems. The former are considered the godfathers of the Taliban in Afghanistan and are therefore viewed with mistrust. The latter have been deemed suspicious in Pakistan owing to their loyalties. Pakistan should utilise the services of people who are respected and trusted on both sides of border.

Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan should be akin to China’s policy towards Pakistan. It will get the same response and affection from Kabul as Beijing has received from Islamabad.


The writer works for Geo TV.