The recent skirmishes between the Afghan and the Pakistan forces at Torkham, that caused tragic loss of lives on both sides, have once again highlighted the complexity of the Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. They brought home, not only the latent tensions in their bilateral ties because of their differences on the Durand Line issue but also the adverse fall-out of the continuing armed conflict in Afghanistan on their relationship. The developments at Torkham were particularly unfortunate considering the numerous linkages and cultural affinities, which offer vast opportunities for strengthening friendly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation to Kabul and Islamabad. The policy-makers of both Afghanistan and Pakistan must share the primary blame for this unfortunate state of affairs. But regional and global factors are also partly responsible for vitiating the climate of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. In particular, India’s proclivity to fish in troubled waters and use Afghanistan to exert pressure on Pakistan on its western front has played a significant role in aggravating tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.
Afghanistan’s claims against Pakistan because of its rejection of the Durand Line as the legal boundary, have remained a major cause of tensions between the two countries since 1947. The importance of this factor diminished during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when millions of Afghan refugees sought shelter in Pakistan which supported the Afghan jihad. It appears that the present Afghan government is seeking to revive this issue both for the purposes of reasserting its known national position on the issue and exerting leverage in its dealings with Pakistan.The unprovoked Afghan firing on the gate being built on the Pakistan side of the border at Torkham to regulate the two way traffic of the people was motivated by these considerations.
Pakistan as a sovereign country, of course, is fully justified to regulate the two way traffic of people at the various border crossing points between the two countries. Better border management is an essential part of the policy of the government of Pakistan to ensure that terrorists, criminals and other undesirable elements are not able to move freely between the two countries in pursuance of their nefarious activities. This is in the interest of Pakistan and Afghanistan both of which have suffered grievously at the hands of terrorists. The reopening of the Torkham border on 18 June with the continued construction of the gate on the Pakistan side to regulate the two way traffic indicates the desire of the two governments to resolve this issue peacefully. The visit of the Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister to Islamabad on 20 June will, hopefully, help in making progress towards this objective.
As for the future, it would be advisable if the Pakistan side takes the Afghan authorities into confidence before constructing barriers at the various border crossing points to regulate the movement of the people between the two countries in order to avoid a negative reaction from the Afghan side. Secondly, while building these barriers we have to be sensitive to the requirements of the tribesmen whose families are divided by the Durand Line. Traditionally, they have enjoyed the facility of free movement within short distances of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Some special arrangements need to be worked out so as not to disrupt the daily lives of these tribesmen. This, of course, would require negotiations and close cooperation between the Afghan and Pakistan authorities to ensure that while tribesmen are able to move freely across the border for legitimate purposes, this facility is not misused for terroristic or other criminal activities.
In dealing with the day-to-day or tactical issues, we should never lose sight of our strategic objectives. Our strategic goal vis-à-vis Afghanistan should be to develop friendly relations and extensive mutually beneficial cooperation with an independent and sovereign Afghanistan which is at peace within and with its nighbours. As for the Durand Line issue, we should develop our relations and cooperation with Afghanistan bilaterally and within the framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in such a manner that borders cease to have any practical meaning for the purposes of trade and movement of people as has happened within the European Union. If we are able to develop regional cooperation within the framework of the ECO on these lines, its member states including Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Central Asian Republics, Azerbaijan and Pakistan would retain their territorial boundaries while allowing free movement of trade and people leading to fast economic growth and prosperity for all the peoples in the ECO region. Our handling of relations with Afghanistan and Iran, and of course other members of the ECO, should be informed by this strategic vision rather than by preoccupation with seeking short-term and short-sighted tactical advantages as is the case right now.
But we wouldn’t be able to realize this strategic vision unless and until there is durable peace in Afghanistan. The events since 9/11 have conclusively shown that the civil war or the armed conflict in Afghanistan would come to an end only when both the Taliban and their opponents learn the lesson that neither of them alone can rule the country in conditions of durable peace. The commencement of a dialogue between the present Afghan government and the Taliban is a must for national reconciliation and the establishment of a broad-based government in which the different political and ethnicgroups are adequately represented so that they have the assurance of living in peace free from the monster of terrorism.
Obviously it is for the Afghans themselves to take the critical decision to engage in dialogue for the restoration of durable peace in their country. Pakistan, Afghanistan’s other neighbours and major powers can merely encourage them to do so as soon as possible. It is necessary that the peace process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Outside powers should refrain from interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs while encouraging the Afghan peace process. Pakistan for its part should deny sanctuary to any Afghan group engaged in militancy and hostilities in Afghanistan. In return, the Afghan government should stop providing sanctuary to TTP fugitives in Afghanistan.
The talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan should ultimately lead to cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan, the establishment of a broad-based Afghan government, and the final departure of the remaining ISAF troops from the country. The process would have to be carefully choreographed. At the initial stages after the commencement of the peace talks, the Taliban would have to accept severe restrictions on their combat operations while Afghan and ISAF troops would have to show similar restraint in their anti-Taliban military operations. Once the talks have made some headway, the Afghan government and ISAF troops, on the one side, and the Taliban, on the other, should declare formal cease-fire. After the Afghans reach an agreement on the establishment of a broad-based government with the inclusion of the Taliban in the Afghan government, the ISAF troops should finally depart from Afghanistan.
Considering the tendency of the Afghans to reach for the gun instead of the negotiating table in settling disputes, it would take some time before they are persuaded to adopt the dialogue process for peace in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, efforts for the commencement of the dialogue must continue. Meanwhile, the danger is that some powers like India would try to fan the flames of war in Afghanistan and aggravate tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan to advance their hegemonic designs in the region. They may also be interested in blocking progress on CPEC. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan should beware of these moves to destabilize the whole region.