Reframing relations with neighbors | Talat Masood

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Pakistan’s relations with both India and Afghanistan are at their worse. Narendra Modi refuses to talk and the expectation that after elections in Uttar Pradesh and other key Indian states New Delhi would move towards engagement has not materialised. Major skirmishes between Pakistan and Afghan security forces on the Chaman border in the last two weeks have resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. It has ratcheted tensions leading to the closure of the border by Pakistan with hundreds of trucks stranded on both sides awaiting truce and some sense to prevail.

Frequent closure of the border is adding to the misery of the common people of the two countries and increasing distrust between the governments. These recent incidents on the Pak-Afghan border are a sad reflection of a deep sense of insecurity and immaturity on the part of leadership of both countries. The downward slide in relations with Afghanistan in particular is going to have serious consequences and needs to be arrested.

A fortnight ago, eight Iranian border guards were killed in clashes with armed rebels on the Iran-Pakistan border straddling the Sistan-Baluchestan province further compounding the border security issues. We can explain away all these unfortunate happenings by blaming the other side and a product of our historic legacy. This may be largely true but it does not absolve us of repeated mishandling of relations and the inability of our leaders as well as those of our neighbours to shed the burden of the past. More significantly, the worst sufferers of these failings are the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of whose livelihoods is dependent on cross-border trade and a successful integrated regional economy.

Pakistan’s internal contradictions are reflected in our external policies. Recently, a high-powered delegation led by the National Assembly speaker and comprising all political parties visited Afghanistan. It had apparently very useful meetings with President Ashraf Ghani lasting nearly six hours and an equally productive interaction with Dr Abdullah Abdullah and other government functionaries and parliamentarians. Senior military officers, including the army chief and head of the ISI, have also visited Afghanistan in recent weeks. It would have been perhaps advisable if initially a composite delegation of civil and military leadership would have visited Afghanistan and presented a more coordinated and comprehensive point of view.

With the Americans and the Chinese, too, we have two parallel interactions — one being conducted by the army leadership and the other by the civil leadership. And it is not necessary that these are closely coordinated.

In many cases foreign governments take advantage of this lacunae to push their agenda. India in particular has been using it as a ploy to justify its intransigent behaviour. Moreover, decisions based on purely security considerations without taking into consideration its impact on the economy, social structure of the society and foreign policy have been extremely damaging. The emergence of TTP, the rise of sectarianism in the country and the separatist movement in Balochistan are largely the outcome of these warped policies taken during military rule and sustained despite the return of dejure civilian governments.

We have to become a normal democratic country for achieving internal cohesion and for maximising our external clout, otherwise we will continue to be exploited.

Differences with Tehran also need to be sorted out as a matter of high priority. Apparently, we had no option but to join the Saudi alliance. Our strategic partnership, deep religious affinity and emotional relationship with Saudi Arabia are too strong that we could have possibly refused being a lead member of the alliance. No doubt, we have assured Iran that we will not be a party to any venture that is directed against them. General Raheel Sharif apparently conveyed similar assurances in his personal capacity. But the Iranian government is unwilling to accept these statements on their face value. In any case, General Sharif, although a highly respected commander, will have little say on Saudi policy towards Iran. Washington’s support of the Saudi alliance is based on the rationale that it will countervail Iran’s rising influence. It also suits them as it has divided the Muslim world and pitched one Muslim group against the other thus completely eliminating the threat to Israel and allowing it to expand its power and territory. Pakistan clearly had to tread a delicate path. It has not fully pleased either party basing on the wise premise that it is better to keep both sides not fully satisfied than pleasing one party, the Saudis, and inviting the wrath of Iran.

The basic problem with all the three countries Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is that they are trying to solve their internal and external issues unilaterally through the use of hard power whereas these political and economic challenges need to be addressed through dialogue and cooperation with internal interlocutors and with neighbours.

Pakistan’s relationship with all these three countries is security oriented. With Afghanistan, we wanted to make a new beginning when President Ashraf Ghani took office. Without any doubt he took a bold initiative to improve relations with Pakistan. He initially succeeded in building a level of trust with civilian and military leadership. Regrettably it did not last very long and felt betrayed when the Taliban and the Haqqani network continued to operate from Pakistani soil and made some lethal attacks on Afghan military and civilian targets.

Pakistan’s deep hostility with India has complicated our relations with Afghanistan. The choice of supporting the Taliban by our security establishment was motivated primarily to countervail India. This gave rise to our own brand of Taliban that has been attacking the state. Fortunately we have largely been able to contain the insurgency and established the writ of the state. No doubt, the military action in Fata, especially in North and South Waziristan, has greatly helped in mitigating terrorism but what is needed now is to focus on the economic, political and social aspects of the region. Implementation of the Fata reforms should not be delayed and become a casualty of political expediency.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2017.