Fluctuating Pak-Afghan relations

Ayaz Ahmed

The Afghan leadership has dismally failed to bring the war-torn country out from the protracted terrorism, militancy and bad governance. However, they have ably excelled to heap fabricated blames on others for all mounting issues plaguing the war-weary Afghans. Such a dereliction of duty by the incumbent unitary government would further exacerbate and complicate the  deeply-entrenched political, economic and security issues of the country.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has recently blamed Pakistan for continually supporting cross-border terrorism. Astonishingly, he said that he would knock the door of the United Nations against such abetment of terrorism by Pakistan. In this context, the polarised Afghan unity government has presumably turned a blind eye to the covert and overt involvement of some regional powers in sponsoring and  perpetuating terrorism and militancy.

Arguably, the Indian strategic and intelligence quarters have penetrated deep into the domestic and foreign policy circles of Afghanistan. The crumbling Afghan unitary government is compelled to seek and adopt policy dictations from New Delhi. To provide a cover-up to the burning matter of  RAW,s involvement in terrorism and militancy in Pakistan, India induced the Afghan government to burst on Pakistan and accuse it of fuelling cross-border terrorism so as to push the RAW matter to the backburner for the time being.

Despite mistrust  and divergences, Pakistan and Afghanistan mostly share common economic interests and are facing the same security challenges in the region. On the security, economic and educational fronts both need each other to maximise their core national objectives. However, there exists a range of divergences and irritants which need urgent attention so that the ongoing trust does not turn into mistrust.

On the economic front, the present bilateral trade volume between the two countries stands at approximately $2.5 billion. Both countries have agreed to increase the trade level to $5 billion by 2017. Pakistan is the largest export destination accounting for some 32.2 percent of all Afghan exports. The PML-N leadership is also pondering over establishing an exporting bank in Afghanistan and initiating a currency swap with the Afghans.

Moreover, the 1965 Afghan Transit Trade Agreement redesigned in 2010 as the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) facilitates all Afghan exports via Pakistan to the Wagah border with India and to the world through the Karachi and Gwadar seaports. In return, Afghanistan allows Pakistani trucks to move products to all regions of Afghanistan. To expand the APTTA, negotiations on a Pakistan-Afghanistan Tajikistan transit trade are in the final stage.

Over and above, under the 2003 technical support programme, Pakistan has extended infrastructure development projects by constructing roads and hospitals. Some of these projects have been successfully completed while the others are in the process of completion. Soon, Pakistan Railways will begin to carry 400 containers to transit to Afghanistan per week.

To make Afghan trade easier through the APTTA, Pakistan has fulfilled a long-standing Afghan demand of reducing electronic scanning of incoming Afghan transit cargo from 100 percent to just 20 percent, thereby reducing port clearance time dramatically.

On the education front, a large number of Afghan students are enrolled in Pakistani universities. More than 30,000 Afghan nationals have so far graduated from Pakistani institutions. They are now playing an active role in the reconstruction and socio-economic development of the war-ravaged country.

Approximately 4,000 Afghan students are enrolled in different educational intuitions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Moreover, the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) also provides adequate seats and scholarships to talented Afghan students.

It would be a win-win situation if Pakistani universities established branches in Afghanistan. Such initiatives will not only assist Pakistani universities in earning good reputation and resources, but also help improve Afghan students and the education sector.

On the security front, Pakistan and Afghanistan hardly cooperate and coordinate with each other. Both countries are plagued by the lurking spectre of cross-border terrorism and militancy. Due to the ongoing military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, a large of hardened Pakistani militants and terrorists have found sanctuaries in the northwestern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Fugitive TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah is also believed to be hiding in Afghanistan under the nose of Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

Furthermore, one more irritant in harmonious bilateral relations is the objectionable Indian role in Afghanistan. A plethora of Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have been heavily immersed in stoking low-level insurgency in Balochistan by providing arms and financing to different insurgent groups. Apart from this, India-made sophisticated weapons have been recovered time and again in militancy-hit Fata during search operations.

Afghanistan has its own grievances about the cross-border infiltration of terrorists and militants. For instance, dozens of Pakistan Taliban fighters recently killed by US drone strikes in the Afghan province of Khost were brought and buried in Dir. Their bodies were wrapped in the flag of Al-Badar – an outlawed terrorist organisation – and a large number of villagers were reported to have attended the funeral.

The Afghan Taliban with their Pakistani counterparts and sympathisers pledged allegiance to Mullah Mansoor, the Afghan Taliban leader, at Kutchlak, a few kilometers away from Quetta. Such unrestricted movement of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan has angered Afghanistan and will also result in increasing the trust deficit.

Arguably, the economic progress and effective security of both the countries largely rely on each other’s socio-economic and security conditions. Pakistan cannot access and capitalise on the burgeoning energy resources of Central Asia without Afghan support. On the other hand, Afghanistan requires Pakistan’s transport and seaport infrastructures to connect itself with the world for export and import purposes. Also, they need each other to contain and stamp out simmering terrorism and militancy.

However, on account of the ongoing change in geopolitics, Afghanistan seems to be slowly tilting towards the Iranian Chabahar Port, a visible jump into Indian regional bandwagon. All that is due to the improved infrastructure on Iranian side connecting Chabahar port city to Afghanistan via road and rail; devaluation of Iranian currency against the US dollar; reduced transport cost and better security condition of Iran.

Presumably, if Afghanistan completely diverts to the Chabahar port, it would result in a huge loss for us on both the economic and security fronts. The Afghans would deny access to Pakistan for Central Asia via the Wakhan Corridor possibly under the Iranian and Indian influence. Such Afghan moves will not only disconnect Pakistan with the energy-rich region but also deprive it of immense transit fees.

The current climate of trust and rapprochement has provided a marvelous opportunity to both Pakistan and Afghanistan to mend their ways and bury the hatchet for greater national and regional interests. For increased bilateral trade, it is pertinent for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to foster their connectivity by constructing rail and road links between Gwadar to Chaman, Peshawar to Kabul and Peshawar to Tokhram.

Equally important, banks, communications, travel and customs facilities should be arranged as soon as possible for smooth flow of two-way trade. In this context, a liberal visa regime for businessmen, skilled workers, academia and social workers would also prove effective.

It is also imperative to block cross-border infiltration of terrorists and militants. In this regard, both Pakistan and Afghanistan should stamp out terrorist hotbeds on their soil and beef up security on both sides of the Durand Line. Besides, the ISI and the NDS should also cooperate and coordinate intelligence on terrorists and militants so that they can be easily hunted down.

Afghanistan needs to ensure Pakistan that the Indian diplomatic missions on its soil will not be involved in fomenting terrorism and insurgency in its neighbouring country. Both the countries should also jointly work to root out the mushrooming drug trade because it is a big source of funding for terrorism. Such a window of opportunity rarely comes about between Pakistan and Afghanistan, so it must not be missed due to bilateral acrimony.

The writer is the editor of The Asia Watch.

Email: ayazahmed6666@gmail.com

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