The faded clouds of fear

September 23, 2018

One positive outcome of Qureshi’s visit is the willingness of the two countries to activate some of the bilateral forums by holding their meetings in October

The faded clouds of fear

Yet another attempt has been made to improve relations with Afghanistan as Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi paid a visit to Kabul on September 15 and termed his meetings with Afghan leaders as ‘very advantageous’.

Though one would have to wait and see as to how much advantageous was his maiden one-day visit to Afghanistan, certain decisions that were made showed that both sides are keen to keep trying to overcome trust deficit so that concrete steps could be taken to improve bilateral relations.

By visiting Afghanistan ahead of every other country after beginning his second stint as foreign minister, Qureshi conveyed the message that Pakistan attached utmost importance to its relations with the neighbouring Islamic country. The Afghan government also showed that it realised the importance of its often uneasy relationship with Pakistan when Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani invited his Pakistani counterpart to visit Afghanistan. Qureshi responded positively to the invitation and he was rewarded with meetings not only with Rabbani, but also President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr Abdullah, whose position in the national unity government is equal to that of prime minister.

More high-level visits are now keenly awaited. President Ghani extended an invitation to Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit Afghanistan when he phoned to felicitate him on winning the July 25 general election in Pakistan. Like past Pakistani rulers who perform the Umrah pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia after coming into power, Imran Khan selected the same destination for his first overseas visit. However, he would certainly like to visit Afghanistan at an opportune time.

Qureshi also invited the Afghan President and CEO when he met them separately in Kabul. In fact, Qureshi was even quoted as saying that both would be visiting Pakistan in October even though the Afghan government has yet to confirm the visits. It is unlikely that President Ghani and CEO Abdullah, who were bitter electoral rivals before US Secretary of State John Kerry intervened to enable them to form a unity government in 2014, would travel to Pakistan together. It would be an achievement for Islamabad’s diplomacy if even one of them was to visit Pakistan in October so soon after Qureshi’s Kabul trip.

President Ghani undertook two trips to Pakistan since winning the presidential election against Abdullah in 2014. One was in November 2014 just two months after assuming charge as president and the second in December 2015 to co-host with Pakistan the Heart of Asia conference dedicated to Afghanistan. As both visits didn’t come up to his expectations with regard to Pakistan’s help in promoting the peace process with the Afghan Taliban, he stopped coming to Pakistan even though he was invited a number of times. As for Abdullah, he has yet to pay a visit to Pakistan in his four years of rule and there is no indication that he has had a change of heart keeping in view his past unfriendliness toward Islamabad and his closeness to New Delhi.

There were some hopeful signs as Qureshi ended his Kabul visit, but no progress was made on a few issues. For instance, the Afghan government made no commitment on Pakistan’s renewed offer to train members of the Afghan law-enforcement agencies.

The offer by Foreign Minister Qureshi to train personnel of the Afghan police and other law-enforcement agencies was renewal of similar offers made by previous governments in Pakistan. Former Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif had first made the offer in 2011 to train Afghan army officers in Pakistan, but the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai had rejected it. President Ghani accepted the offer, but he managed to send just six Afghan army cadets to study and get training at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. In comparison, about 1,100 Afghan army officers were sent to India for training.

Pakistan even sweetened its offer by promising to equip and train a brigade of the Afghan National Army, but it wasn’t taken. Islamabad’s proposal for a strategic partnership agreement first made to Afghanistan in 2011 after Kabul signed a similar pact with India was also rejected. In fact, Karzai came up with tough conditions unacceptable to Pakistan before the strategic partnership agreement could be even considered.

One positive outcome of Qureshi’s visit was the willingness of the two countries to activate some of the bilateral forums by holding their meetings in October. The Joint Economic Commission, the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Coordination Authority, the steering committee of the Joint Ulema Conference and the five working groups of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity are supposed to be useful platforms offering framework for working for common goals. If the meetings could be held as planned in October, this could lead to incremental progress in the efforts to improve Pak-Afghan relations. However, such forums ought to meet frequently and uninterruptedly as acts of violence in any country shouldn’t serve as a pretext to postpone meetings or stop implementing decisions already made.

As a goodwill gesture, Pakistan started sending the 40,000 tonnes of wheat it had gifted to Afghanistan when Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi paid a visit to Afghanistan. It also decided to waive off regulatory duty on imports from Afghanistan. This has already led to 118 per cent increase in Afghan exports to Pakistan in 2018. Islamabad assured that hurdles in the Afghan transit trade via Pakistan would be removed, though it would like Kabul to agree to negotiate a new agreement to regulate the transit trade in place of the previous five-year treaty that expired in 2015. Pakistan also doesn’t want Afghanistan to plead India’s case for inclusion in the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement.

Another hopeful move was the agreement to hold a joint conference of Afghan and Pakistani Ulema for issuing a common religious decree against suicide bombings and the use of their territory for attacks against each other. The religious scholars have issued such decrees separately in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but there is a belief that a joint Fatwa encompassing both countries could be more useful.

China’s important role in mediating the disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan was also acknowledged by the decision during Qureshi’s visit to hold the second round of the trilateral meeting. The last trilateral meeting between Afghanistan, China and Pakistan was held in Beijing in November 2017.

The latest and most promising framework for improving relations between the two neighbouring countries is undoubtedly the Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity that was made operational during the summer. The five working groups under this framework have met once, but more meetings are planned to ensure focused discussion and likely solutions of issues such as security and anti-terrorism cooperation, border matters, trade, Afghan refugees, etc.

Qureshi seemed quite optimistic about moving forward in improving relations with Afghanistan when he made the incomprehensible remark that ‘the clouds of fear have faded away’. However, the success of the latest attempt to overcome the acute trust deficit would be judged once Islamabad and Kabul stop blaming each other for their woes and start believing one another’s words.

The faded clouds of fear