Amid a long deadlock in relations with Kabul, Pakistan’s decision to attend the Moscow moot on Afghan peace in mid-April demonstrates the country’s desire to miss no opportunity to mend its strained relationship with its troubling neighbour.
The continued tensions and hostilities with Kabul have, for decades now, abundantly proved that Pakistan is finding it difficult to restore normal relations with Afghanistan. However, the Moscow conference – which aims to develop a regional consensus for peace in Afghanistan – offers a good opportunity to sincerely hammer out a strategy and ensure peace in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, important regional players – such as India and Iran (who are probably the key stakeholders to the conflict), the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul regime – will also be participating for the first time in the meeting.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan began to turn sour much before Pakistan decided to close the border for all types of traffic (after it was confirmed that the perpetrators of deadly terrorist attacks came from Afghanistan).
In December 2016, Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani snubbed Pakistan at the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar and rejected $500 million that Islamabad offered for the reconstruction of his country. Earlier, Kabul upset Pakistan when it refused to attend the Saarc summit that was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in September 2016.
Pakistan currently finds itself in a real dilemma. One the one hand, Islamabad is finding it difficult to mend its relations with Kabul while on the other, peace and stability in Afghanistan is absolutely vital for its own peace and stability. Any attempt to leave Afghanistan completely will also prove to be a hard bargain. Such steps could potentially push the Afghans towards India and the latter may use its soil against us to destabilise our western regions.
Pakistan wanted to quickly achieve two objectives when it resorted to the short-term measure of closing all border crossings with Afghanistan. First, it wanted to tighten the border crossing mechanism and avoid further such untoward incidents. Second, it wanted to pressurise the otherwise ‘least responsive’ Kabul administration to take action against militants and their sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. But the objectives have not materialised. All there has been is a mere reiteration of the pledge during the NSAs meetings in London that steps will be taken for effective border management and dealing with the enemies.
As a quick-fix, Pakistan prefers short-term measures instead of long-term strategies of engaging Kabul politically and diplomatically to control the hydra-headed monster of cross-border militancy.
Pakistan a long porous, mountainous border with Afghanistan – dotted with almost 270 frequented and unfrequented crossing points. As a result, any attempts to stop militants from entering Pakistan by simply closing the formal points and leaving 260 irregular crossings unattended are bound to fail.
Without a proper quid pro quo, Islamabad’s policy of intimidating Kabul through military action or stopping transit trade to compel Afghanistan to stop TTP militants from using Afghan soil against Pakistan was also a fruitless exercise.
The Afghans, including their leaders, are gradually becoming immune to these pressure tactics by Pakistan. In August 2016, Pakistan also closed its borders at Chaman for almost three weeks. Instead of listening to Pakistan’s concerns, Kabul started ignoring Pakistan and even raised the controversy of the Durand Line.
Pakistan’s other dilemma is that the more it is distancing itself from the Afghans by taking punitive measures, India is stepping in to fill the vacuum by easing travel requirements for the Afghans to India and offering them cheaper business, educational and medical facilities.
Pakistan failed to realise that the National Unity Government in Kabul – which Afghans sarcastically claim has everything except ‘unity’ – is facing internal problems, such as endemic corruption, ethnic divisions and dwindling internal security. The worst victims of the border closure were the people of the two countries as hundreds and thousands of families were stranded for weeks on both sides. Many of them lost millions in trade and businesses and faced unemployment. In this situation, the Afghan leadership, instead of taking any responsibility, started accusing Islamabad of blackmailing and creating problems for the Afghans.
Pakistan policymakers need to seriously rethink their stance over Afghanistan. Instead of reinforcing failures by pursuing the current policy of ‘strategic distance’, they should readopt a policy of ‘strategic engagement’ with the Afghans. If not checked, the developing situation in the Afghan backyard will signal to another bloody wave of proxy wars and insurgency. We must rise to the occasion and take bold decisions – perhaps even unpopular ones – regarding Afghanistan. Let’s drop our historical baggage and prove to be not just a big country but people with big hearts.
We must end this madness, by extending a hand of friendship to Kabul and engage with Kabul with an open mind instead of only focusing on India’s influence in Afghanistan. We must also acknowledge that Pakistan has recognised the Ghani-led unity government as a legitimate regime and had agreed in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group to take action against elements in the Taliban who are irreconcilable.
Reports suggest that a delegation from the Afghan Taliban visited Islamabad and might have discussed their participation or otherwise in the scheduled meeting in Moscow. Pakistan must exercise whatever – if any – influence it has over the Taliban. Simultaneously, the Kabul regime should be persuaded not to arrest those Taliban leaders who agree to a peaceful settlement; and the international community can also be asked to revise the blacklist.
While engaging with Afghanistan, Pakistan must keep the historical distrust of the Afghans in mind and act as a mere facilitator. Once an environment of sufficient confidence is provided, Kabul and the Taliban should sit together and find a solution to the ‘Afghan problem’ themselves. Pakistan’s prime objective is to ensure a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, not who rules Kabul. If Afghanistan is stable it will, no doubt, be friendly.
The write is Islamabad-based journalist and anchorperson of a Pashto talk show.