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May 18, 2018

Plan for peace


May 18, 2018

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been so poor for so long that there is justifiably some cynicism whenever the two countries announce they have opened a new chapter in their diplomatic ties. Will the agreement on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity, finalised on Monday after months of negotiations, give more hope for optimism than previous diplomatic breakthroughs that ended up being false starts? There is certainly some cause for optimism. The APAPPS is the most comprehensive agreement reached between the two countries in their recent history. It covers most important areas, including militancy, intelligence-sharing, border security, refugees and economic development. Working groups will be set up to reach points of agreement on all these issues. Most importantly, Afghanistan has greater incentive than before to work with Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has finally realised, after years of ruinous war, that the only way to bring peace to the country is through political negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban too have expressed a willingness to talk. Pakistan will have an important part to play in any peace talks and improved relations between the two countries will help smooth the path to peace.

Still, there is ample reason for scepticism. The APAPPS is an aspirational document rather than an operational one. There is much work to be done by both countries to make it functional and there are likely to be many points of disagreement, all of which could derail any progress made. Afghanistan has been insistent that transit trade between it and India be permitted through Pakistan. This is not something we are likely to allow at a time when ties with India are at rock bottom. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan still blame each other for hosting and even supporting militant groups that carry out cross-border attacks. Any new attack in either country could and usually does end up leading to new tensions. On refugees, Pakistan has taken the position that individual militants have embedded themselves amongst refugees and is keen to repatriate them to Afghanistan, a country that is still far from safe. The one hopeful sign is that regional powers have now become stakeholders in peace, with China offering to host three-way talks with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its involvement could act as a spur for two countries that have been reluctant to translate their words of peace into sustained action.

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