Thursday February 02, 2023

Pak-Afghan relations after Torkham

June 22, 2016

The crisis at the Torkham border, which tragically turned bloody, has now settled down. More importantly, a comprehensive, though little known, attempt at constructing a bilateral architecture of engagement involving Pakistani and Afghan stakeholders from the security sector is back on track.

Wiser by the crisis that left a trail of tragic deaths, unwanted military engagement and blocked borders, decision-makers will be less rash. So from the fires of Torkham a more robust Pak-Afghan modus operandi is likely to emerge.

Kabul’s focus is on engaging decision-makers in Pakistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani led the effort to engage Pakistan’s COAS General Raheel Sharif. Despite the hiatus in contact following major terrorist attacks, Ghani and Gen Sharif have remained in touch via meetings, phone calls and even Skype. This engagement has, however, been low yield, fragile and also politically costly for Ashraf Ghani. Gen Sharif has used his authority, interest, institution and operational control to actually lead the Afghan policy; the Pakistan Army has also occasionally vetoed initiatives proposed by the Foreign Office.

Often this engagement between the Afghan president and Gen Sharif has been subsumed in the broader crisis-dominated context of relations between the two countries. These include terrorist attacks which both countries trace to terrorists located in each other’s country; Pakistan’s patronage of the Taliban and the Haqqanis; Afghanistan’s benign neglect of the TTP; Pakistan’s insufficient pressure on the Taliban to come to the Afghan peace talks; and Kabul allowing India to use Afghan territory to conduct subversive activities in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, added in this mix are its troubled relations with India and ties with Tehran, which have been left icy after the infamous tweet episode during Iranian President Rouhani’s visit. So Pakistan’s diplomatic score-card carries a C grade.

This ‘C’ flows from Pakistan’s internal dysfunctionality. More than the potentially worrying situation on its borders, Pakistan’s ‘captains of diplomacy’ are check-mated by a paralysing two-front domestic situation.

One, the prime minister, despite setting up the National Security Committee and his four-men advisory structure with two advisers, one special assistant and one foreign secretary – and with himself as the foreign minister – remains averse to convening multi-stakeholders’ policy meetings. The 18-month old National Security Committee met only once when the air force chief requested a meeting be convened. Two, with the PM’s interest lacking, the men in khaki call the shots. The Foreign Office’s role is further eroded.

With the GHQ now effectively the ‘point-zero’ of diplomacy, that is where perhaps the most important and comprehensive meeting on Pakistan’s Afghan policy took place on May 13. The army chief chaired the meeting, and the top military brass engaged directly with Afghanistan’s Special Envoy-Ambassador Omar Zakhilwal. It was a discussion on a road map to better border management. Also reviewed were issues of bilateral security and intelligence interaction.

Most importantly, the army chief accepted Ambassador Zakhilwal’s proposal that Pakistan return Afghanistan’s Angoor Ada area. The agreement, essentially a CBM, was implemented a week later and earned Pakistan some tentative goodwill in Kabul. Within the principal interlocutors, Gen Raheel Sharif’s team and the Afghan envoy, the May 13 meeting laid the foundation of robust engagement. That none of the Foreign Office men were involved in the May 13 meeting clearly indicated who leads Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

And then on June 12 the Torkham crisis began to unfold. The Afghan ambassador, visiting Kabul, got a call asking he get clearance for the construction of the gate, since the earlier Afghan-Pakistan meeting broke down over the issue. Instant clearance was not possible. The rest is known. The communication channels that were opened after the May 13 meeting were used, and the crisis was prevented from spiralling. And within four days it was resolved.

However, the limits of soldiers leading diplomacy became apparent in the making of the Torkham crisis. For example, the handing back of Angoor Ada did not automatically generate the goodwill to prevent Afghan firing on Pakistani men constructing the gate at Torkham. Similarly, subsequent misunderstandings over prior information regarding the gate could have been avoided by exercising greater patience. Inclusion of diplomats in the dialogue was a must.

Pakistan’s position on construction of a gate on its own territory was non-negotiable. Internationally recognised borders, like the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, are non-negotiable. Ties between common tribes must ensure easement rights remain operational within structured frameworks but these ties cannot erode sovereignty – as shouldn’t the three decades long Pakistani hospitality of the Afghan refugees. The agreed-upon border holds more firmly, both de facto and de jure. However, given the deep linkages between the geographies and the people this border is inherently a border of friendship and cooperation.

The irony around the habitual non-acceptance of the border by successive Kabul governments is that today there are more stringent controls and checks on the Afghan side of Torkham, with biometric checking, passport checks, scanners, sturdier barbed wire, greater number of heavily armed border guards, security and even intelligence personnel. On the Pakistani side check and controls have been more lax.

At Torkham the force of life in all its radiance is at display. On foot, in wheel barrows, in buses, crossing for daily jobs, to meet relatives, as traders, for medical treatment and so on. At Torkham this sea of people of all ages shows the living reality of the Pak-Afghan border. And indeed it is this force of life that also prompted Kabul to seek the opening of Torkham after having opened fire into Pakistani space that martyred a Pakistani major and others from the Afghan forces.

However, Pakistan’s past policy blunders have all come to haunt us. Until 1979 – easement rights, Kabul’s reservations and heavy peoples’ movement notwithstanding – there were border controls, including a gate, at Torkham. Mentoring and managing the internationally funded Afghan jihad, Pakistan under Gen Ziaul Haq slipped into a soft-state mode with free flow of men, machines money and ideologies. Blunders continued and, subsequently, under another military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan decided to back off from its decision to construct a fence along sections of the Durand Line.

In 2004, the country – under threatening moves by Afghan border guards at Torkham – did not construct a new gate at Torkham as a replacement to the old one. When Pakistan’s defence attaché called and urged the relevant major general to go ahead with the construction the latter conveyed the decision taken by his seniors of “not creating an international scene”. Pakistan’s past conduct of the business of the state has severely lacked foresight.

With multiplying security problems facing Pakistan and Afghanistan, joint border management is in their interest. In an environment of trust, such cooperation will be far simpler. The silver lining is that the crisis demonstrated the capacity of Pak-Afghan engagement to overcome a bloody crisis.

This crisis management became possible due to a few factors. Communication between the two sides never broke down, both sides were at varying degrees keen to avoid a breakdown, and both – and especially Kabul – felt the urgency to open the border. Also, there was no third party involvement hence no scope for misunderstanding, and finally both were keen to agree to a way forward to jointly work on border management.

The writer is a senior journalist.


Twitter: @nasimzehra