A paradigm shift?
PRESIDENT Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan is being hailed as a watershed moment. Realising its promise will be a longer-term process. Hopefully, the expectations generated by the visit will be met and a new era in relations between the two countries commences. However, a history of mutual suspicion and negative perceptions has to be overcome. This will not be easy because the burden of the past is rooted in interests and institutions and in contrasting perspectives and priorities.
Ashraf Ghani has indicated the vision and will to take up this challenge. He has committed himself to addressing Pakistan’s concerns without compromising on Afghanistan’s sovereign independence. Pakistan must reciprocate by demonstrating a similar vision and will in addressing Afghan concerns. Otherwise, Ghani will come under increasing domestic criticism for his Pakistan initiative.
Increasing trade and assistance, investment and economic cooperation, and embedding them in emerging Chinese- and American-supported initiatives for regional cooperation and integration around concepts such as the ‘heart of Asia’, the ‘new Silk Road’, ‘economic and energy corridors’, etc should assist in transforming Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. The leaders of both countries have shown an awareness of this in their discussions and agreements. Pakistani opinion is very excited by the prospect. I suspect Afghan political opinion may be more cautious and sceptical.
Pakistan’s Afghan policy should not be India-centric as that will alienate Afghan public opinion.
Islamabad is concerned about raids into Pakistan from Afghan territory and the degree of Afghan-Indian security cooperation. The safe havens in Afghanistan for Pakistani and other militants who conduct these raids could threaten the success of the Zarb-i-Azb and Khyber One military operations. Afghanistan’s increasing security cooperation with India, unbalanced by similar cooperation with Pakistan could, in Pakistan’s perception, sow the seeds of anti-Pakistani sentiment among substantial numbers of the next generation of security decision-makers in Afghanistan.
Kabul is adamant that Pakistan needs to make a clear choice between supporting the new government of unity and continuing to actively or passively support the Afghan Taliban who seek to militarily overthrow it. The Taliban remain undefeated, and as the Western military presence whittles down they seem to be regaining the military initiative in some areas of Afghanistan. This could threaten the stability of the new government. Pakistan, moreover, has in the past advocated the need for conceding a share of power to the Taliban if a negotiated settlement is to be possible.
The Afghan government sees the military and political resilience of the Taliban as largely the result of Pakistan considering them an indispensable policy option in case of an ‘unfriendly’ or ‘pro-India’ government in Kabul. Prior to the Taliban, the policy movers and shakers in Pakistan saw Gulbadin Hikmatyar as their ‘only reliable friend’ in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani, however, is trying to make the case that the only lasting friends of Pakistan in Afghanistan are the Afghan people and their elected government. These differences, which have strained the bilateral relationship, must now be resolved if the genuine goodwill generated by President Ghani’s visit is to be sustained and built upon.
This can only be done by legitimate, far-sighted and courageous leadership in both countries. Doubling bilateral trade, unhindered and unconstrained transit trade facilitation, joint infrastructure and energy projects, effective and realistic border management, intelligence sharing, security cooperation, regular media and other exchanges, etc. should provide the necessary thrust for a new relationship to blossom.
It will also be essential for Pakistan to make clear to the Taliban and their cohorts that with the drawdown of foreign forces and an elected and friendly government in Kabul that is also willing to engage with them, they must now learn to pursue their political objectives through legitimate political activity and not through violence. This has to be backed up by consistent, not selective, military operations in Pakistan.
There is an impression that the role of the political leadership in Pakistan has been relatively marginal in comparison to that of the military leadership in the planning and substance of the visit of the Afghan president. It has also been said that ‘for the first time’ the Foreign Office and the GHQ were ‘on the same page’ with regard to the importance and potential of the visit.
The prime minister’s absence from the country when President Ghani arrived may have suggested he was largely out of the loop. Accordingly, some Pakistani commentators opined that Ashraf Ghani ‘had done his homework’ and ‘knew where the centre of power lay in Pakistan’. Moreover, in calling upon the COAS at the GHQ, Ghani demonstrated that his purpose and vision prevailed over any sense of protocol because of the priority he attached to improving relations with Pakistan.
For Pakistan to continue having simultaneously strained relations with Afghanistan and conflict-prone relations with India on the one hand, and making Pak-Afghan relations hostage to Pak-India relations on the other, will unnecessarily incur diplomatic and other costs. India-Pakistan relations will, even in the most optimistic scenario, move forward at a pace that is far slower than what is necessary and possible with Afghanistan. Moreover, because of the far greater stake of Pakistan in stable and improved relations with Afghanistan, a Pak-India zero-sum game in Afghanistan guarantees similarly greater costs for Pakistan.
Accordingly, Pakistan’s Afghan policy should not be India-centric as that will only alienate Afghan public opinion. Forcing choices upon a proud and self-respecting neighbour, which Pakistan would not accept for itself, is not the best way to cultivate its friendship and understanding. The arrogance and parochialism of Pakistan’s Afghan policy — which within a few years forfeited the enormous goodwill towards Pakistan that was generated in every Afghan home during the Soviet occupation — must be replaced by a more enlightened and generous approach. The civilian political leadership has the primary responsibility to ensure this. It must not be derelict.
Narendra Modi’s India currently represents a far more daunting challenge for Pakistan’s foreign policy than Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s India policy, apart from its other objectives, must also complement and facilitate its Afghanistan policy. Positive feedback is what matters. Not self-defeating zero-sum games.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.