Rebuilding relations with Afghanistan


There is today far less attention by the US on Afghanistan as its focus has shifted primarily towards the civil war in Syria and Iraq. The growing threat of the IS in the Middle East, Russia’s more aggressive posture in Europe and China’s growing assertiveness in Southeast Asia are being accorded high priority relegating Afghanistan to a secondary position. Then there is a sort of fatigue about Afghanistan as the war is going nowhere nor its end seems in sight. Infighting between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has been very demoralising for the Afghans and is another reason for US frustrations. War in Afghanistan is not a serious issue during the current presidential campaign either. Trump has been more emphatic as he wants US troops to be withdrawn and Afghanistan left to its fate. Hillary, too, would like the Afghans to take greater responsibility for their security and a less active role for the US. The fate of funding for the war although committed by Nato allies and the US until 2020 cannot be taken for granted. In this scenario the US finds it convenient that India plays a major role in Afghanistan and also protect its interests.

Exploiting on these weaknesses the Taliban in the last one year have captured large parts of territory in east and south Afghanistan and have been attacking bases in north as far as Kunduz.

In these uncertain circumstances, Pakistan has taken the right step of strengthening border management. After all as a sovereign country it has to protect its interest. It would be advisable if Afghanistan takes reciprocal steps to strengthen its borders rather than raise unwarranted objections by promoting the issue of Durand line. The view held in certain quarters in Afghanistan that Pakistan’s border fortification was a reaction to the Chabahar agreement — signed between India, Iran and Afghanistan, is far-fetched. The real aim of Pakistan as stated clearly by the COAS is to improve security on both sides of the border. It is in the larger interest of the two countries as they could then focus on economic and social development. Moreover, it would be wrong to assume that strengthening border management will reduce bilateral trade or hinder legalised movement of people who share a common culture and heritage. In fact, it would be to the contrary.

More importantly, we have to ensure that Pakistan’s sacrifices and constructive engagement in Afghanistan over the years is not negated due the current misgivings between the two countries. The alleged presence of Afghan militant groups in Pakistan is perceived as undermining Afghanistan’s fundamental security interests. Although to allay Afghan apprehensions Pakistan is putting considerable pressure on the Haqqani network and the Taliban Shura to ensure that they do not use its territory for any hostile activity against Afghanistan and US forces. The Afghan government and the US, however, remain unconvinced. They conveniently overlook the reality that Taliban have physical control over large areas in Afghanistan and are operating from there but despite that both Afghan leadership and US officials keep pressuring Pakistan to stop sheltering these militant groups and do more. They expect Pakistan to show zero tolerance toward these groups and yet expect that it try to bring these groups to the negotiating table.

Recently, the US administration withheld $300 million assistance to Pakistan signalling its disapproval for the support to these groups. Afghanistan by blaming Pakistan finds an alibi for playing the TTP card and encouraging India to engage in manipulative tactics against us. India is also seen as a benefactor, building dams, roads and extending financial support. Memories are short and it is forgotten that India was siding with the erstwhile Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan and Pakistan shared the brunt with it. As things stand this mistrust is unlikely to go away soon. The Indian influence in military and intelligence services is far too strong and their attitude toward Pakistan is antagonistic. During President Ghani’s recent visit to India, Modi pledged one billion dollar as development assistance and signed the deal for extradition of terrorists. Pakistan obviously has problems as such agreements have a potential for being misused. Of course, Afghanistan can have the best of relations with India and Pakistan should have no problem provided it does not use its territory for destabilising it. Despite these contradictions it is in Pakistan’s vital interest to build a harmonious relationship with Afghanistan and win back their trust. The world has moved on and Pakistan cannot remain a prisoner of the Cold War mentality. This would require looking at Afghanistan and its other neighbours detached from its India-centric policy. Indeed it is a sad reflection that despite our strong affinities with Afghanistan in terms of a shared border, common religion, similar ethnicity and interdependent economy we have not developed a mutually trust-based relationship. Even bearing the burden of millions of refugees instead of being a huge plus has become a contentious issue. The current issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan that is aggravating tensions and firing up emotions is the return of Afghan refugees. About 1.5 million Afghans are documented and nearly as many undocumented are residing in Pakistan. No country in the world apart from Turkey has that many refugees. Then these have been with us since the early 1980s and most of them are now in their third generation. And Pakistan is a country whose economy can hardly meet its own expenditures. The government now has given specific orders for their return by the end of this year. It would be unfair to expect that Pakistan host these refugees indefinitely but despite our limitations compassion must be shown for deserving cases. It would also be advisable not to politicise the issue and lose whatever goodwill has been gained by the hospitality extended to them over the years.

These major challenges in foreign policy demand a reappraisal of policies. But this could only happen if the PM takes all the stakeholders along and formulates foreign policy and defines national interests that are more holistic.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2016.