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Opinion

August 9, 2016

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Improving Pak-Afghan relations

When Dr Ashraf Ghani took over as president of Afghanistan he was perceived as the man to do business with since, unlike all others on the political scene, his hands were not stained with the blood that had been spilt in Afghanistan over the past so many years.

His assumption of office was therefore welcomed by many, except a few of his diehard opponents, and so was his early visit to Pakistan which gave rise to expectations of relations between the two countries being put on an even keel.

This gesture was reciprocated by Pakistan when both Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul one after another to reassure Dr Ghani of all possible help and cooperation in this regard.

This initiative of early contacts between the two did not go unnoticed by actors with their own agendas who sprang into action, and soon acts of violence followed in the capitals of the two countries – seriously damaging the new-found mutual confidence. This led to recurrence of doubt and mistrust between Kabul and Islamabad.

The trust deficit, let us admit, is not new. Efforts have never been made to address it methodically and bridge the gap by removing once and for all the irritants that keep cropping up for one reason or the other. What the two countries have done instead is to invariably address on an ad-hoc basis any issue that has arisen. The cumulative effect of this attitude is now seriously affecting if not ripping apart our relations with Afghanistan.

This merits in-depth examination in a serious manner if bilateral relations are to be stopped from further going downhill. Pakistan particularly needs to learn a lesson from the role a Pakhtun delegation from Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata played when it visited Kabul in November 2015 to convince President Ghani to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Climate Change Conference in Paris.

It may be recalled that at that time the two leaders were reluctant to face each other. President Ghani not only acceded to the request of the delegation to have a meeting with Premier Sharif but also agreed to participate as co-chair in the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad.

As a result of these efforts the two leaders not only met but also decided on the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Conference (QCG), a platform for Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and America to work together to make the process of reconciliation with the Taliban a success.

While the QCG was making efforts to that end Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan, bringing the reconciliation process to a grinding halt. This was the second time that the process of reconciliation was derailed, the first being the leaking of Mullah Omar’s death to the press from Kabul just a day before the second round of Murree talks. As the element of mistrust already existed despite these efforts, not having been addressed properly to absorb such shocks the two capitals locked horns over the incident viewing it from opposite perspectives. Islamabad blamed Kabul for scuttling the process by making Mullah Omar’s death public whereas Kabul in turn accused Pakistan of keeping the death secret for two long years. This was attributed by Kabul to Islamabad’s insincerity towards efforts for reconciliation.

Polarity in the positions of the two sides over the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour proved to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin of the QCG which is now believed dead and not in a position to achieve what it was designed for without first bridging the trust deficit between the two capitals.

While Pakistan’s sphere of influence is shrinking inside, it seems bent upon reducing it further by pushing the Afghan refugees out of the country despite the fact that the security situation inside Afghanistan has not improved. Instead of availing this opportunity to mend fences and regain some of the lost ground, we are asking the refugees to leave. Aiding fuel to fire, we are also asking for border management.

If Pakistan could look after the refugees for decades and did not push for border management, why can’t it wait for a while more since political realignments and economic readjustments are now taking place presenting new opportunities in the region?

These issues are no doubt of paramount importance for Pakistan and need to be tackled at the earliest – but only when the situation is conducive otherwise it will backfire and further inflame the existing tensions between the two countries.

The question arises: how do we go about correcting that situation and what steps are required to be taken to restore confidence between the two? And where to begin? These are some basic questions that the leaders of the two countries need to address if they are serious about setting relations on the right track.

As a first step towards confidence building, the two governments could consider engaging people, outside of their respective governments, who are sincere, well aware of the ground realities and want wholeheartedly to bring the two countries closer to each other. This group, away from the public eye, should be tasked to suggest ways and means on how this trust deficit can be best bridged.

In interstate relations nothing is fixed and immutable; everything revolves around state interest. It becomes easy for countries to work together when their interests converge. The interests of Afghanistan and Pakistan do converge on one point – peace in the region. To achieve this objective they have to address, first, the core issue of trust deficit between them.

In this fast changing world, and in view of the political and economic development taking place in the region, it is in the interest of both countries to overcome the bitterness of the past and move forward towards strengthening bilateral relations. When some progress is achieved on that it will be easier for the two to move to other immediate issues like return of Afghan refugees and border management.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Email: [email protected]

 

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