Afghanistan and Pakistan begin to explore ways of addressing their mutual concerns through engagement and dialogue
Afghanistan and Pakistan are now beginning to explore ways of addressing their mutual concerns through engagement and dialogue. It seems a realisation is finally setting in that there is no option for the two neighbours – sharing a long border and enjoying close people-to-people affinities — but to resolve their issues through talks.
When the Afghan Taliban recaptured Kabul in August 2021 after the US-led NATO military pulled out of the war-torn country, the Afghan people as well as neighbouring countries had hoped that this would mark the end of over four decades of conflict and civil war that adversely affected not only Afghanistan, but also all its neighbours. Especially in Pakistan, there were genuine expectations that durable peace and stability in Afghanistan will bring relief to the border areas, which have been a theatre of war all these years. There were also hopes that the peace in Afghanistan would open vistas for regional connectivity in trade, transit, infrastructure development and mega energy transmission projects.
By March-April 2022, the world was witnessing with concern that the Afghan interim government was not making any headway on three crucial fronts which remain of vital importance for Afghanistan, the region and the world at large. The international community expected the Afghan Taliban to move fast in forming an inclusive government, come up with a human rights framework and play its role in fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, the decision of the major powers and the UN system to impose economic sanctions on Afghanistan and blocking of its foreign exchange assets contributed towards isolation of the country and compounded the economic hardships and suffering of the people.
Over the past one year, Afghanistan’s engagement with Pakistan also deteriorated due to differences and tensions over the issue of cross-border terrorism and the continued presence of the TTP commanders on the Afghan soil despite an explicit commitment given by the Afghan Taliban leaders that their territory will not be used for terrorism against any other country. TTP’s continuing terrorist activities in Pakistan using Afghan soil, particularly the two recent major terrorist attacks on the police in Peshawar and Karachi, have understandably aggravated the environment of bilateral interaction.
In his address at the Munich Security Conference held last week and in the bilateral meetings with with many leaders on its side lines, when Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari raised these matters and concerns relating to Afghanistan, particularly the issue of TTP and cross-border terrorism, emphasizing the need for concrete actions by the Afghan interim government, the veiled response from the Afghan side was that Pakistan instead of highlighting these matters at international fora, should be taking all the issues of mutual interest bilaterally.
In the context of these developments, a Pakistani delegation led by Defence Minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif and including Director General ISI Lt. General Nadeem Anjum, Special Envoy and Foreign Secretary visited Kabul on February 22. The delegation met four key Afghan leaders: Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar, Defence Minister Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and Foreign Minister Ameer Muhammad Khan Muttaqi.
During this visit, Pakistan categorically raised the need for the Afghan government’s firm action against the TTP operating in Afghanistan and cooperation with Pakistan in combating cross-border terrorism. These two points remain Pakistan’s vital concerns with Afghanistan. The short press statement issued by Pakistan after the visit also indicates the country’s focus on these key concerns.
The Afghan interim government on its part shared its priorities that included movement of people, trade, transit, economic cooperation and regional connectivity. All these are important issues for the people on both sides, but it is perplexing why Torkham gate was suddenly closed by the Afghan side just when this high-level visit from Pakistan was on the cards. If there were any concerns, these could have been discussed during the visit rather than resorting to a unilateral measure that sent negative messages bilaterally as well as internationally.
While the visit of the Defence Minister has been an opportunity to melt the ice in bilateral interaction and conveying Pakistan’s uncompromising stance on the TTP and cross-border terrorism to the Afghan side, given the overarching nature of bilateral relations further progress on addressing the equation with the Afghan interim government will require continued engagement. As the two sides have already placed their respective priorities on the table, the next logical step would be to evolve a mutually inclusive agenda for bilateral interaction and taking required actions on the ground. Such a course of action would be in the mutual interest.
It is important for the Afghan interim government to understand that eliminating the TTP threat is the most essential and most immediate requirement for Pakistan. Since 2014, Pakistani security forces have made significant progress in combating terrorism and eliminating the TTP’s strongholds. However, to overcome the TTP challenge in a conclusive manner will require ending their hideouts and support network on Afghan soil. This is in the national interest of Afghanistan too as it would prevent formation of nexus of the TTP with other terrorist groups, particularly Daesh. It would also convey a signal to the international community about Afghanistan’s commitment in fighting international terrorism.
Pakistan on its part has to ensure that the vital relationship with Afghanistan, apart from seeking Afghan actions against the TTP, should entail cooperative engagement in all areas of interaction such as movement of people, trade, transit, economic cooperation and regional connectivity. It has been pointed out time and again that the conditions prevailing at border crossings between the two countries are not reflective of the spirit of close neighbourly relations between the two peoples. Regional dynamics would change positively if the impediments relating to interaction in the movement of people and trade and economic cooperation are not just addressed but revolutionised. This is also required in pursuance of the geo-economic strategy, which Pakistan has professed in recent years.
From here, there is a need for effective follow up in regular bilateral interactions through continued high-level exchanges at political level as well as engagement through institutional channels. There is no substitute for engagement and the engagement has to be persistent while respecting principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs. If the bilateral relations are put back on track, it would enhance Pakistan’s capacity to play a constructive role in the areas such as inclusivity and adherence to the human rights framework in Afghanistan for its productive interaction with the world.
The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to Afghanistan