Thursday February 02, 2023

Building trust

November 30, 2022

Pakistan’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, along with a delegation of foreign ministry and other officials, was in Kabul on Tuesday for a one-day visit to meet her Afghan counterpart and discuss a range of issues involving bilateral relations. Apart from the issues on the agenda – education, health, regional connectivity, people-to-people contact, and socio-economic cooperation, as well as cross-border trade – possibly what took most attention were the powerful optics: a woman official from Pakistan landing in Kabul, wearing her usual official attire and discussing education with officials of a country whose women are deprived of this very basic right. The short talks have concluded in the two countries agreeing to introduce new mechanisms for bilateral relations, with the Afghan deputy foreign affairs spokesperson, Hafiz Zia Takal, tweeting that the two countries had “agreed to take positive and productive steps for a solution to the problems”. There was a sense before the visit that border security would also be on the agenda, considering the various incidents of violence along the border.

Pakistan was expected to raise the rights of women and girls’ education as well, and it was in this context probably that the state minister also met the Women’s Chamber of Commerce. Encouragingly, Pakistan has committed to strengthening linkages between women entrepreneurs from the two countries and giving preference to women-run businesses in Afghanistan as export partners. The poignant message to Khar from an Afghan women’s group – ‘don’t forget us’ – tells one everything about the state of women in a country barely struggling to keep up its economy and catch up with modernity, all the while as its unrecognized government continues to ignore global concerns about its rights record. Khar’s visit comes on the heels of a decision by the TTP – the Pakistani Taliban – to end its ceasefire. In the past over 20 years we have heard a lot about various ceasefires with the militants here in Pakistan but there appears to be no end to their striking spree. Pakistan naturally needs cooperation with Afghanistan to deal with this problem, as well as the issue of cross-border movement, both for purposes of trade, and for less welcome purposes. Given the mountainous terrain, it is almost impossible to fence all of the border, especially since there has been a long tradition of tribes people from the same tribes moving across the border, for purposes of trade and for family meetings. It is therefore essential that Pakistan develop a good working relationship with Afghanistan – not only to keep our country safe but also to help Afghanistan move towards a situation where all its people, notably women and minorities, are in a better position. At the same time Pakistan will also naturally be keen to protect its own interests and to ensure that Afghanistan can help with an end to the militancy that has recently become active on our soil.

Such talks with Kabul are extremely significant and Pakistan must develop a regional understanding with its neighbour to the west for the sake of its own security as well as trade and the safety of people living along the border areas. Much of the onus is on the Afghan Taliban to also understand that it cannot remain isolated forever. It will need to not just cooperate with its neighbours but also to start looking at its own citizens as equal stakeholders in the country’s future.