By Ayaz Ahmed
Pak-Afghan relations have been marred by mutual mistrust, acrimony and blame game. Under the visible tentacles of a regional power, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has recently threatened to block Pakistan’s trade access to energy-rich Central Asian States (CAS) if Islamabad does not formally permit Kabul to import Indian goods via the Wagah border.
Such a threatening tone and tenor adopted by the Afghan president will further deteriorate the current hostile relations between both the countries. Pakistan and Afghanistan have already lost a large number of convergent socio-economic and security interests on account of their lingering mistrust and baseless mud-slinging against each other.
Pakistan and Afghanistan share most of their security and economic interests. Islamabad and Kabul badly need each other’s land access to continuing regional trade and security cooperation to flush out hardcore terrorist and militant groups. Afghanistan requires the facilities of Pakistani universities and hospitals for its students and patients. Such win-win cooperation will greatly help Pakistani educational institutions and hospitals to set up their branches in Afghanistan, thus reaping substantial revenue.
Despite the existence of such marvellous opportunities, both the countries have been at loggerheads with each other, especially on the security front. If Pakistan and Afghanistan futilely continue to remain at cross purposes, they will further harm their long-term security and economic interests in days ahead.
The major stumbling block in the way of amicable Pak-Afghan relations is perennial cross-border terrorism. Both Kabul and Islamabad distrust each other of clandestinely supporting the Afghan Taliban and the fugitive leaders of the hibernating TTP, respectively. As a result, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP have continued to take full advantage of such increasing mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan by organising deadly terrorist attacks on both sides of the porous Durand Line.
Whenever bilateral relations between two neighbouring states are plagued by deep mistrust, each side, therefore, resorts to employing surreptitious tactics to harm the other. In the same way, hardcore Pakistani terrorists, militants and insurgents are warmly welcomed by Afghan security agencies to deliberately exploit them in stirring up disruptive chaos in the neighbouring country.
But the crisis-ridden unity government of Afghanistan should be mindful that the TTP and the Afghan Taliban support each other’s ideological narratives and covertly afford shelters to one another when in hot waters.
Though ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb has successfully dismantled the organisational structures of the TTP and its splinter outfits from fata, some Afghan terrorist groups still have hotbeds in north-western Balochistan and terror-infested tribal areas. From these unsafe areas, they are immersed in planning lethal attacks on the tottering Afghan government, ill-organized security forces and underperforming institutions. Therefore, wherever terrorist attacks take place in Afghanistan, Kabul immediately raises its finger toward Islamabad, which ultimately results in further worsening of bilateral relations.
The persistent impasse over the timely repatriation of 1.5 million registered and a large number of non-registered Afghan refugees has been a constant irritant in fluctuating Pak-Afghan ties. Pakistan has recently decided to dispatch them back to war-torn Afghanistan at any costs. According to Pakistan’s security agencies, a significant number of these refugees have been involved in terrorist attacks and other criminal activities.
To the dismay of these homeless people, corruption-ridden Afghanistan does not possess a sustainable formal economy and cannot afford even makeshift facilities for such a large number of refugees. The unity government of Afghanistan is rather apprehensive that these unskilled and uneducated refugees will be a mounting economic burden, thus compelling the government to spend a large chunk of foreign funds on them.
Since many a refugee is beset by poverty and joblessness, such a situation will further exacerbate the menace and monster of terrorism and militancy in Afghanistan. Both IS-Khorasan and the Afghan Taliban have already prepared themselves to attract a raft of jobless and disgruntled Afghan refugees and recruit them for a slew of terrorist and militant attacks in the terror-infested Pak-Afghan areas. Ominously, this will adversely impact the law and order situation inside Pakistan.
Even though Afghanistan has the international financial backing to rehabilitate these refugees, both Kabul and Islamabad need each other’s all-out assistance to preempt the imminent refugee crisis. A large number of Afghan refugees have got married to Pakistani nationals, acquired Pakistani identity cards and established thriving businesses and houses here. Therefore, the PML-N government should exercise caution in dealing with the delicate matter of Afghan refugees. Any indifference and negligence in this regard will create threatening security issues for Pakistan in the near future.
It is imperative to mention that Afghanistan has lately calibrated an ill-conceived geostrategic and geo-economic policy under the tutelage of Indian economic and strategic thinkers. The Afghan government is grossly mistaken about completely blocking Pakistan’s trade access to Central Asia via the economically important Wakhan Corridor; rescinding its long-lasting transit accord with Pakistan and consequently accessing India through the Chabahar Port.
Afghanistan should be acquainted that such an obstructive and misguided step will not block Pakistan’s trade access to Central Asia. After completing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Islamabad will be able to use alternative and safer routes such as through China to export and import goods and energy resources from the region.
The projected Afghan trade route will enormously harm Kabul’s regional economic interests. This risky and long Afghan trade route to India via Iranian Chabahar Port will apparently make Indian exports to Afghanistan quite expensive, hence largely unaffordable to the ordinary Afghans. Moreover, this will negatively impact Afghan fruit exports to India because Indian consumers could possibly prefer less expensive and better quality local fruits to those of Afghanistan’s low quality and costly.
Furthermore, Afghanistan will lose a large sum of transit fees which it charges on Pakistani trucks by using its road links to Central Asia. Such a non-cooperative behaviour by the Afghan leadership will bring about more roadblocks and bottlenecks for the early completion of TAPI gas pipeline. More importantly, Afghanistan is not only expected to acquire an adequate amount of gas from this trans-regional project, it will also gain substantial transit charges from Pakistan and India.
So, it is abundantly clear that antagonistic and obstructive geo-economic policies of Afghanistan targeting Pakistan will badly hurt both the countries. The two countries are already reeling from surging poverty, unemployment, terrorism and militancy. It is time for Kabul and Islamabad to cooperate rather than pursuing elusive policies of proxy wars and containment of each other.
The writer is editor of The Asia Watch.