Pakistani legislative and executive branches of the state and media have been so overwhelmed by pulls and pressures emanating from conflicts in the Middle East during the last few weeks that political observers of the country had no time to discuss the far more vital issue of Pak-Afghan relation. These have more significance for the country than any other foreign policy issues (remember our former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar saying that Kabul is the most important foreign capital in the world for Pakistan). The aforementioned phenomenon represents the paradox of the contemporary Pakistan; that it is situated in South Asia in close proximity with Central Asia but is quite comprehensively tuned to the Middle Eastern political and ideological music.
Be that as it may, 2014 was the year of high hopes for a breakthrough in Pak-Afghan relations. The May 2013 general election in Pakistan had given birth to a government that vehemently pleaded the case for normalization of relations with neighboring countries, with particular focus on promoting economic ties. To be fair one must add that the previous government was also not much different in this regard but higher hopes were attached with the new government for implementation of this policy because Nawaz Sharif’s political base is in the Punjab; that also happens to be a bastion of the country’s security establishment. More importantly, there was also a change in the leadership of Pakistan’s Army, and it is an open secret that it plays a key role in shaping and implementing the country’s Afghan policy. The vibes emanating from the security establishment and public statements by the Prime Minister, particularly after the Peshawar tragedy, suggested that there was a clear shift in the state policy towards militancy and unlike the past practices, no distinction will be made between “good” and “bad” Taliban in the future. It created expectations for a clean break from the past practices and for a clear state policy against extremism and militancy in all its forms and hues. Unfortunately that was not the case to be and the “good” Taliban phenomenon has lingered on. No amount of rhetoric will suffice to hide this fact and actions will speak louder than words.
In the meanwhile there were presidential elections in Afghanistan in 2014 that culminated in the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) led by President Dr. Ashraf Ghani. The new Afghan President doesn’t have the background of a traditional political leader, a point that was raised against him by his political opponents in the election campaign. But interestingly the same point proved to be his strength, as the new president of Afghanistan did not carry any undesirable political baggage. He was not involved in the civil war in his own country thus was not identified with any violent and corrupt group, nor was he tainted with the blame of taking part in the proxy wars launched by other countries in Afghanistan. He possessed a clean slate to take a fresh start with bold initiatives.
One such bold initiative was Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s Pakistan visit in November last year when it seemed that both the countries were prepared to address each other’s concerns. Both sides not only agreed to do away with terror pockets or sanctuaries used for launching attacks across the border but they also decided to start a coordinated war against terrorists on both sides of the Durand Line. Political observers were impressed by the Afghan President’s clarity of thinking about all round cooperation between the two countries. The only thing that he wanted from Pakistan was reciprocity and cooperation in bringing about peace in Afghanistan, a demand that Pakistan readily promised. For a while things went on well, as army leadership from both sides established active contacts and practical steps were taken in terms of intelligence sharing and action against terrorists. In mid-February this year Afghan leadership was assured that Pakistan will facilitate talks between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban. The process was expected to start by mid-March but it is not in sight even in the second half of April. This situation is creating serious concerns among Afghans. It is understandable as they have had a winter full of fighting, an extra ordinary thing even by Afghan standards, as a large number of terrorists crossed the border before and during Zarb-e-Azb and joined the Afghan Taliban. Dr. Ashraf Ghani is facing a lot of criticism in this situation as his opponents have started blaming him for embracing Pakistan without guarantees for peace. The start of a summer offensive can spell disaster not only for peace in Afghanistan but can also wash out all the efforts that Pakistan made on the eastern side of the Durand Line. Taliban have in their fresh attacks focused on northern Afghanistan, to give the impression that they are not coming from the southern or eastern border, but after using their Pakistani sanctuaries for so long it’s impossible for them to hide their footprint. Lest we forget, a number of international political players particularly friendly powers like China, Turkey and even Russia are closely observing these developments. Expansion of terrorist attacks into Central Asia will create fresh anxieties.
It’s high time for the concerned quarters in Pakistan to critically revisit the country’s Afghan policy. They should realize that the old policy has failed and it has damaged Pakistan very badly. Our policy makers should have some self-confidence. No other country can compete with Pakistan for the Afghan friendship provided we have a sound Afghan policy. There are no two countries with similarities and inter-dependence that our two countries have. Taliban, irrespective of their different names, follow the same extremist ideology. Many of the Afghans ask a very genuine question. They say that if Pakistanis deem Taliban unfit to rule their country, why would they support their rule in the brotherly country Afghanistan? Afghan Taliban has become a perpetual IRA (Irish Liberation Army) without its Sien Fin (the political branch of IRA). It’s a dangerous fighting machine but without political capital. The Afghan people participated in the country’s election in large numbers in the face of Taliban threats. What can we do? We should have a benign policy towards Afghanistan like the one China has towards Pakistan. We should befriend the Afghan state instead of befriending certain groups. The Cold War is over. We should replace the geo-strategic with geo-economic. Last time, the chaos in Afghanistan had led to the rise of terrorism. God forbid, if repeated, it can turn Afghanistan into a source of ethnic earthquakes in the region. It goes without saying that earthquakes move around without visa and passport!