Bridging the Gap: The need for eliminating mistrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan – Haris Khurshid

By Haris Khurshid*

Afghanistan’s security situation remains fragile even after 15 years concerted of efforts by the U.S. led coalition forces. Moreover, since the death of its leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in an American Drone strike in Balochistan, Taliban has suspended all peace negotiations with National Unity Government and hardened its stance to come to the negotiation table. President Ashraf Ghani’s government, on the other hand, has also felt suspicious of Pakistan and its role in the peace talks with the Taliban. The mistrust between the two countries has now reached crossroads where its either do or die for the both the neighbours, with mutual security and long term stability hanging in the balance.

Since last year, a number of Incidents of cross border firing incidents between the border guards of the two countries have taken place resulting in prolonged closure of crossing points at Torkham and Chaman borders. Pakistan’s high commission in Kabul has been on the vigil after receiving anonymous threats. The chaotic relationship has now taken the form of diplomatic ruckus as Afghanistan has slightly tilted towards India particularly after Nerendra Modi’s bid to isolate Pakistan internationally.

This was aptly shown recently by Ashraf Ghani’s government’s refusal to attend SAARC regional moot in Islamabad and then rejecting Pakistani aid of $500 million at the “Hear of Asia” conference in Amritsar. Among many, one reason for sour relationship with Afghanistan can be traced back to Pakistan’s futile Afghan policy since late 70s by cultivating alliance with only far right Islamist political groups. During the Afghan Jihad, Pakistan has supported these groups due to their strong military prowess against hostile communist regime supported by hundreds of Soviet troops. However, Pakistan’s Islamist leaning Afghan policy was due to acrimonious Afghan “left” since Sur (Red) revolution leaving no room for rapprochement.

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It was the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and subsequent Global War on Terror that changed the regional dynamics forcing Pakistan to come out of its comfort zone by choosing new allies against much friendlier Taliban regime which was globally unpopular for harboring Al-Qaeda and its “harsh version of Islamic rule”. The not-so-diplomatic approach of  Hamid Karzai’s government, growing Indian influence and alleged hostilities inside Pakistan through Afghanistan aggravated the already strained relationship. On the contrary, Afghan Taliban never made it to Pakistan’s security threat matrix even in the bloody spell of insurgency at the peak of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan as the former had never aligned with the latter in its bloody campaign against the Pakistani state.

Despite alleged presence of Afghan Taliban’s key leadership in Pakistani territory, their core military capabilities were inside south and east Afghanistan. Afghan Taliban had strong networks in countryside, which provided them enough opportunity to re-organize and launch a concerted insurgency against ISAF and Afghan National Security and Defense Forces. Besides, the failure of governments in Kabul due to ethnic and ideological fractures within, prevented effective reconciliation and integration program to bring Taliban to political fold. Pakistani interlocutors emphasized that Afghan government needs to understand that Afghan Taliban will listen to Pakistani hosts but not beyond a certain limit. However bringing them to the negotiating table is as much a Pakistani desire as Afghan.

The complaints from either side are countless and at times both nations seem irreconcilable. But policy makers from both the countries must understand the need of finding any starting point to come closer in the evolving geo-political scenario of the region. There are certain confidence building measures that can help bring two neighbors closer and normalize relationship. First and foremost, frequent contacts and vibrant channels of communication should be established. Belligerent rhetoric and negative media campaign should be discouraged at state level. Trade and commerce between two countries should be independent of politics and inter-state relationship as the people from both countries have traditionally relied on open trade irrespective of policies of their respective central governments.

Also, frequent closures of crossing points and long queues of loaded truck convoys have done more damage than occasional border skirmishes. Pakistan should work alongside UNHCR and the Afghan government for respectable repatriation of refugees. More scholarships to Afghan students, offering training to nascent bureaucracy and capacity building of professionals in various fields will help build positive image of Pakistan in the minds of future Afghan leaders. Also, easing visa process for Afghan patients seeking health facilities in Pakistan, workers, traders, students and those having Pakistani spouses will be helpful to strengthen people to people contacts.

Pakistan has already suffered both in terms of economic and human loss due to immediate blow back of the Afghan war. Hence putting an end to the violence is the genuine desire of people from both countries. In the age of economic growth and regional integration the dream of development cannot be realized without sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

*The writer is blogger with special focus on science, security and international relations

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