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July 1, 2016

On the western front


July 1, 2016

The current state of Pakistan’s foreign relations could at best be termed dismal, a case in point being the state of its relations with its western neighbour.

The two neighbours were only recently involved in a border clash; Pakistan’s forces responded to firing from the Afghan side, ostensibly as a reaction to Pakistan building a gate at the border to regulate cross-border traffic. Such firing incidents are not uncommon on the eastern border, but such an incident on the western front, and one resulting in casualties, was unsettling.

The incident can be seen in a broader context, and has rather deep connotations. This border has been turbulent for almost four decades; it has seen perennial conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979. And since before that time, the two neighbours have never had a friendly disposition. One reason behind the acrimony is the supposedly disputed nature of the border, the famed Durand Line, that has kept relations on the edge.

Post-9/11, after the US invasion of Afghanistan, and Nato presence to fight terrorism, ground realities were transformed. Pakistan and Afghanistan got an opportunity to settle old issues, but that did not help. As the war on terror dragged on, and spilled over into Pakistan’s border areas, things became more acrimonious between the two countries, while the US tried to bridge the gaps.

The border was practically an open crossing for locals, with a daily movement of thousands, with hardly any effort at checks. Militants also blended in this sea of human flow, and slowly this became an issue for both sides; but with still no regulation.

Political pundits have interpreted the situation in various perspectives, strategic, political, and economic. It is pointed out that Kabul is playing in someone’s hands; the presence of that ‘hand’ is very obvious in Pakistan. One could say that a person with the experience of Ashraf Ghani knows very well what he is doing, and why.

A better understanding of the issue calls for it to be seen in the bilateral context – though this does not mean that there are no regional angles involved. In a way, this reflects the changing regional dynamics, as the US has drawn down its forces, and along with the Afghans, it has not been able to reach an understanding with the indomitable Taliban.

In terms of regional dynamics, this incident reflects a change in Af-Pak policy and attitude on the part of the US. If Washington had been seeing or planning to have an Afghan solution along these lines, it was not to be so. While such efforts were underway in the last two years, Kabul seemed to have kept its options open. Now it has decided to be part of the India-Iran axis, or entente.

If recent history is any guide, it sees that as a viable option, based on national interest (The Foreign Office should not lose any sleep over this). Modi’s foreign policy is ‘all-encompassing’, understandably bypassing Pakistan. This could be seen as part of the newest version of the Great Game. Perhaps, Pakistan has overplayed its cards/role.

In the past, Pakistan has reaped the ‘benefits’ of Afghanistan’s troubles. For Afghanistan, it’s payback time. Thus, it is not just the Afghan government, but the people as well who do not see Pakistan as a friend.

The two governments made a smart move by coming together to discuss the border incident/issue, and agree to coordinate on the matter, but that is a band-aid solution. This calls for some sort of CBMs that lead to crisis stability.

As the US tries to keep a lid on Afghanistan’s problems, and its regional fallout, two important points need to be remembered. First, Afghanistan has never been free from outside interference. The US vied for it during the cold war; India seems to have resumed its earlier role vigorously, whether it is development or political support.

Second, Pakistan will remain a stakeholder in Afghanistan, with or without the Taliban, with good or bad relations with Kabul, and with whatever the makeup of the Afghan government has. This is due to the ethnic factor, as well as the underground trade and familial relations. The Durand Line has not been able to keep apart friends and cousins since 1893.

The two countries have had an erratic and troubled past. They had time for healing after 9/11, after a new, somewhat democratic Afghan government took over. But Karzai’s mercurial attitude, and the resurgent Afghan nationalism prevented that. The US drawdown offers them another such opportunity. The historical baggage is still there, but this is another opportunity to issues, before they take a permanent shape as in the case of the eastern border.

Pakistan does not have the resources to manage two fronts at the same time; ultimately, this calls for building trust and burying the past.

The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]






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