AFGHAN government and people see Pakistan’s role as critical and most of them strongly believe that their neighbour can and should do more. With the foreign troops gone, the country is extremely anxious about its future. There is a strong belief that Pakistan is not fully exercising itself to help Afghans overcome violence in Afghanistan. If the level of violence worsens during the ongoing fighting season, the bilateral relations could revert back to Karzai era. Handling of Afghan refugees by Pakistan is another sensitive area. A number of Afghan analysts are of the viewthat cooperation between the two countries could make them an effective anchorage for a regional hub with significant politico-economic clout. A three-member Afghan delegation has visited Islamabad to finalize the procedure for documentation of nearly 1.5 unregistered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. Pakistan also hosts nearly 1.6 millionregistered Afghans. Both countries need to make a collective effort for creating attractive conditions for voluntary return of refugees to their homes.
Previous two weeks saw a burst of activities. Former President Asif Zardari led his party delegation to Kabul, Commander United States Forces in Afghanistan General John F Campbell called on Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, President Ashraf Ghani undertook his visit to India; and there was a semblance of contacts between the Kabul government and Taliban in Doha, facilitated by a Canadian entity Pugwash. Officials from the US, China and Pakistan also attended the talks, withPakistan officially announcing support for the peace talks. It was the third time the Taliban have sat with the representatives of Afghan government, earlier meetings were held in in France and Japan. However have been no formal talks between the two sides; at least there is no such acknowledgement from either side.
Delegation led by former president Zardari was part of outreach programme initiated by President Ashraf Ghani to reach out to Pakistan’s political leadership for consultation and for mobilizing their support for Afghan peace process. There is a bipartisan consensus among the political leadership of Pakistan for contributing towards peace and stability in Afghanistan; and point is home to all that apart from the Afghan people, it is the people of Pakistan who are to gain maximum benefits from a robust and sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Zardari Delegation met with the Afghan President and Chief Executive. Leadership discussed bilateral relations, regional situation and the need for enhanced economic cooperation. Terming terrorism as the common enemy of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Zaradri called for effective cooperation between the two neighbours. “The current environment requires new decisions. Pakistan, Afghanistan and the whole region face serious threats and these threats need new cooperation,” Dr Abdullah said. Zardari hailed the formation of unity government in Kabul. Welcoming the visit of the opposition leaders to Kabul, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson described the visit as a “good omen,” adding that the government encourages political contacts between the two countries since they promote bilateral ties.
Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif discussed Pak-Afghan border coordination and the overall security situation in the region with General Campbell. Border management is the mother of most of the issues regarding Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Pakistan has since long been proposing installation of biometric system on formal crossing points between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bigger side of the issue is informal crossing points. While official crossing points are two, the informal crossings are numerous. Easement rights make the issue still more complicated. While such rights are the entitlement of the people residing within eight kilometers of the Pak-Afghan border, ways and means are not available to ensure that such rights are not misused by other people. Afghan President’s visit to India reaffirmed that the new Afghangovernment is seriously pursuing its policy of rebalancing with respect to its relations with India and Pakistan, and one sided anti-Pakistan rhetoric of Karzai era may be over, at least for the time being. Ghani has made rapprochement with Pakistan a key policy since being elected as Afghanistan’s president.
On its part, Pakistan has made continuous efforts for facilitation of intra-Afghan peace process and smooth transit trade with Afghanistan. Effort is also being made for development of Web Based One Customs System which would help in bringing transparency in the system and enable the Afghan importers and Customs authorities in both countries to trace the cargo en-route to Afghanistan. “Pakistan wants to expect Afghanistan to be open as far as their access to Central Asia is concerned and it’s very natural for Afghanistan to expect from our Pakistani neighbours to open up,” Dr Abdullah said, while speaking to CNN-IBN. Afghanistan needs to appreciate Pakistan’s limitations with regard to extending such facilities to an out rightly hostile country who’s meddling in internal affairs of Pakistan is well known to the Afghan side. Keeping in viewpeculiar relations with India, Pakistan should not be expected to extend the Afghan transit trade beyond Pakistan-India borders on Wagah-Atari route; however, to facilitate Afghan people, Pakistan has permitted India to carry out trade viaKarachi port.
And in Doha, two days of talks between Taliban representatives and Afghan politicians ended without any concrete development. Qatar’s official news agency described the meeting as ‘reconciliation’ talks; while the Taliban termed them as ‘research talks’ in which each delegate participated in individual capacity and presented views. Pakistan has invested heavily in Afghan peace process and is keen to see forward movement in the process. Nevertheless, there is huge gap between the points of view of the two sides. Afghan government as well as the Taliban continue to articulate their preconditions which should actually be the end objectives of the talks. Pakistan supports peaceful, stable Afghanistan; Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif places great emphasis on strong, stable and cooperative ties with Afghanistan under his vision for a peaceful and prosperous neighborhood.
For now, Afghan peace process seems to be moving in right direction, though at snails speed. A glaring discrepancy is absence of a credible guarantor to the final agreement. The process would pick up pace as and when Taliban are made stakeholders though power sharing. At bilateral level, there is need for a joint institutional arrangement for efficient monitoring and management of on-going issues. For this a commission may be set, staffed by both sides. Such commission should have a joint secretariat to keep the developing situation under constant review. Such an approach would create a sense of confidence in the two countries about each other’s intentions.
—The writer is consultant to IPRI on policy and strategic response.