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July 15, 2015



Regional auguries

It is remarkable how the regional scenario has suddenly taken a turn towards a more promising outlook in contrast to the picture as obtained only a few weeks ago. This is true for both Pak-Afghan relations and for Pak-India relations, and indeed farther afield for our standing with Russia, China and the Central Asian States.
Suddenly the prospect of regional peace and harmony beckons. Of course, these good auguries may turn negative again, much like the welcome monsoon rains that are falling over us and may again give way to sweltering heat.
The difference is that while we cannot do much about the hot weather, we can do something about the regional situation to help keep it positive and constructive. Whether this can be done will be a challenge for our leadership.
It was not long ago that hostile and negative comments were emanating from Kabul, in the wake of some appalling terrorist attacks attributed to the Afghan Taliban, including the one on the Afghan parliament. President Ashraf Ghani went so far as to allege that Pakistan was conducting an ‘undeclared war’ against Afghanistan.
Then suddenly last week we learnt that the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban had agreed to meet in Murree, under the aegis of Pakistani authorities, with observers from China and the US, to discuss peace. The Murree meeting was the first direct contact between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban since the abortive Doha encounter in 2013, and was much more broad-based and representative of the leadership of the two sides.
The Afghan foreign ministry described the contact as ‘the first meeting of formal peace negotiations between official delegations of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban Movement”. A Pakistan Foreign Office statement noted: “The participants recognized the need for developing confidence building measures to engender trust among all stakeholders. The participants agreed to continue talks to create an

environment conducive to peace and reconciliation process.”
Following upon this significant development on July 7, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Ufa, Russia on July 10, and discussed bilateral relations in a new spirit of bonhomie and goodwill.
According to reports, the two leaders expressed satisfaction with the progress made in the Murree meeting between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, to promote a peace and reconciliation process and President Ghani appreciated the efforts of Pakistan in facilitating the process, and hoped that it would lead to lasting peace and stability in his country.
Secondly, in Ufa, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had a very productive meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which the two sides emphasised the importance of peace and stability for both countries, and agreed upon concrete steps to bring it about. They agreed to lessen tension on the Line of Control, for which they decided to have a meeting between the DG Rangers and the commander of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF), at an early date.
As regards the ‘outstanding issues’ between the two countries, they decided to have the national security advisers of the two sides to meet in Delhi, as well as to activate bilateral backchannel Track II diplomacy, to discuss the issues away from public attention. Modi also accepted Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to visit Pakistan next year when it would be hosting the next Saarc Summit.
Coming as this meeting did, in the wake of extremely provocative statements that had been made by Indian ministers Parrikar and Sushma Swaraj, as well as the highly objectionable comments of Modi himself made in Dhaka recently, this new thaw was indeed a sea change.
The city of Ufa in Russia, which hosted the summit of the SCO and Brics, was the venue where other good things for Pakistan also happened. It was admitted, along with India, as a full permanent member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and was even invited to attend the exclusive forum of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a speech, thus adding importance and prestige to Pakistan.
In the bilateral meeting with Nawaz Sharif, President Xi Jinping told him that relations with Pakistan were very high on China’s foreign policy agenda, and China wanted close ties with Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif also met President Putin of Russia, who emphasised the value of Pak-Russia relations for his country.
Be it as it may, given our past experience of regional politics, it may be too early to whole-heartedly accept the good auguries of Ufa as an epochal change in the regional situation.
What can only be said at this stage is that the political atmosphere of Pakistan’s relations with its regional neighbours and partners has dramatically improved. With Afghanistan, the next few weeks or months will show if the promise of Murree will materialise and a lasting understanding will develop between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, in a manner that peace and stability will be established in that unfortunate country. It also remains to be seen whether Pak-Afghan relations return to an even keel, as was witnessed in the early days of Ghani’s presidency.
As regards India, the Nawaz-Modi meeting was certainly very encouraging, but our relations with our bigger neighbour have been marked by many false starts in the past. It seems India chooses to improve the atmosphere when it suits it to do so, and turns its back on us whenever it wants. Even if the NSAs meet and Track II progresses, Pakistan would want substantive results from the exercise. If that does not happen, all this brouhaha may amount to nothing.
We need to keep our fingers crossed for good auguries to emerge from these developments. China’s goodwill is of course time-tested and Russian warmth is proving to be consistent. Thus, despite the danger of pitfalls in the other regional relationships, the overall outlook is favourable.
The writer is the executive director of the Center for International Strategic Studies.
Email: [email protected]