Following the telephonic conversation between the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, commander of the US-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, General John W Nicholson’s visit to Pakistan and North Waziristan underscores the beginning of a new phase in the Pak-Afghan relations against an extremely embittered backdrop; Pakistan’s military establishment remains wary of the Indian influence in Afghanistan. It believes both the Afghans and the Washington view it through the Indian prism. The establishment also feels uncomfortable when Afghan leaders insist on a land-route through Pakistan for India to access Afghan and Central Asian markets. Pakistanis are also insisting on a cross-border mechanism to check illegal flow of goods and people through the 2560km border. General Bajwa reiterated the desire for a bilateral security mechanism in his meeting with General Nicholson, conveying Pakistan’s fixation on the issue.
The Afghan leadership, however divided on some key issues internally, on the other hand, hope that General Bajwa and General Naveed Mukhtar, the new ISI chief, may mark a new beginning in the bilateral relations. Their hopes are tied to “conclusive action” against all Afghan Taliban factions. In fact, most of the Afghan discourse focuses on Haqqanis and the “Quetta Shura” as the ultimate panacea for all the ills of their country. They remain wary of the clumsy way Pakistan handled the refugee’s repatriation issue, epitomised by the return to Afghanistan of the National Geographic famed Ms Sharbat Gulla. Her return was preceded by a lot of controversy and the public pressure forced the Pakistani authorities also to approach and tell her she could stay on here.
But poorly thought-through, short-sighted administrative measures had already done the damage and given birth to countless negative stories on the way police and bureaucracy treated the Afghan refugees, even those born in Pakistan.
Following a lot of civil society advocacy the government did revise its policy, extended the voluntary repatriation deadline to December 2017 and we were told that a new, humane, and lenient policy framework has been drafted. But as usual, the issue is languishing at the table of the prime minister. He needs to find time to sign off the new recommendations.
This typical dithering on the government part on an issue that is critically important for Pakistan’s global image, unfortunately, keeps the negative story alive, with many Afghans still using it to bash Pakistan, ignoring that many of the negative stories stem — beside official policy — also from inefficiency and corruption and insensitivity at the police and bureaucracy level.
But the policymakers certainly cannot and must not hide behind these traits that are common to most countries in the region. They need well-thought out policies keeping in mind their possible implications for the target group.
These issues also resonated at a recent civil society bilateral dialogue Beyond Boundaries at Karachi, where local businessmen and Afghan delegates pointed out that policy contradictions and operational hazards flowing from them in Pakistan had brought the Afghan transit trade via Pakistan down to 27 per cent of Afghanistan’s total imports. Afghan delegates cautioned of further decline in bilateral and transit trade if Pakistan does not rationalise administrative hiccups. They requested the Pak-Afghan joint chamber to help resolve practical problems so Afghan trade continues to flow through Pakistan and returns to earlier levels.
If the recent past is any indicator, it is safe to say that security and border management continue to dominate such discussions whenever Afghans and Pakistanis get together. However, the Karachi dialogue did offer some positives as well; Afghan delegates welcomed some of the measures Pakistan is likely to announce on refugees. Both sides also agreed to work for some confidence building measures such as a lenient visa regime for patients, intending students and those wanting to stay on in Pakistan on business. One could also discern among Afghan delegates a big appetite for study scholarships, cultural and sports exchanges.
And herein lies the hope for Pakistan; if the security establishment could rationalise its policy towards Afghanistan, take the emotions and knee-jerk reactions and tactical approaches out of the policy framework, that could possibly help in rehabilitating Pakistan’s image in Afghanistan and create goodwill for it at the grass roots level because for most Afghans Pakistan remains the closest and cheapest option. They also love Pakistani clothing brands and platforms for performing arts such as Coke Studio. These are avenues which Pakistan can utilise for helping Afghanistan and regaining the Afghans’ confidence. The security establishment needs to let these avenues play out and see whether it helps the bilateral relationship.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2017.