The recent four-day tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the closure of the Torkham border point underpin the need to address the prevailing mistrust between the two neighbours to ensure a prosperous future for the region. Tensions arose when tanks and army personnel rushed on both sides of the Durand Line after Afghan officials objected to the fencing of the 2km strip at the Torkham border by Pakistani authorities. Resumption of routine cross-border traffic following the meeting between Afghan Ambassador Omer Zakhilwal and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif implies a reduction in tensions, but it seems all is not well. Border management issues, Kabul’s unclear position on Durand Line and mistrust on both sides impede good relations between the two countries despite their willingness to come closer.
This was not the first time that the arrangement at the Pak-Afghan border created tensions. It should be noted that back in 2007, Afghan forces quickly removed the fence erected by Pakistan and resorted to shelling in South Waziristan’s Angoor Adda area. Earlier in July 2003 also, Pakistani and Afghan forces clashed over border posts. Pakistan inherited the 1893 agreement and the 1919 treaty pertaining to the Durand Line, the 2,250km-long boundary dividing the two countries, from British India in 1947. While the world recognises the Durand Line as an international boundary, the Afghan government has historically refused to recognise it as such. Both sides held several meetings recently to work out better border management of the Durand Line, but its implementation becomes problematic due to the incapacity and unwillingness of Afghanistan. The fencing of the Torkham border was a step on the part of Pakistan to upgrade border management in a bid to stop illegal movements on the traditional route. Cross-border movements by militants and attacks in Pakistani cities from areas in Afghanistan are an open secret.
While tensions at the border are worrisome, a few positive developments are also taking place that could be utilised to revamp relations. Unlike the past, the two countries have a common interest in defeating terrorism in the region as both understand that stability in one country is not possible without peace in the other. But the problems stem from mistrust and the dynamics of regional politics. Despite there being periods where both sides possessed the political will to resolve bilateral issues, ties between them have remained as bumpy as they had been immediately after 1947. A gradual change is now taking place in the minds of certain sections of the Afghan elite who argue that peace in Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan while instability in their country is in the interest of India. While interacting with Afghan parliamentarians, government officials, journalists, experts and diplomats, one gets an idea of what influential circles in Afghanistan think. There is some realisation in that country that without peace in Afghanistan, stability is not possible in Pakistani border areas, nor is the materialisation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Despite this realisation, Kabul remains sceptical about Pakistan’s role in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group. It also doubts the Pakistani establishment’s will to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. It still blames Pakistan for any terrorist attack that happens in Afghanistan and doubts its intentions when it comes to the Haqqani network and its activities.
On the other side, Pakistan has its own concerns about Afghanistan and its uncertain future. Islamabad is worried about the influence of India in that country and the presence of terrorists, who are using Afghan soil against Pakistan. In the current geostrategic scenario, the status quo is neither in the interest of Afghanistan nor Pakistan. But due to mistrust, a gap remains between the two countries and inside this gap lies the advancement of terrorists. What must be realised is that both countries have no choice but to eventually come closer sooner or later. Pakistan has a powerful antagonistic neighbour on its eastern border and its ties with Iran aren’t too friendly either. Above all, it needs to ease tensions on its western border to have access to the Central Asian states and to make the CPEC a success. Completing projects like CASA-1000 and TAPI would face serious challenges if Afghanistan remains unstable. In the same vein, Afghanistan also needs peace and stability and for Kabul, the CPEC is as important as it is for Pakistan. Being a landlocked country, it has little choice but to depend on Pakistani ports and transit route.
If the two countries have common goals – both want to defeat terrorism and establish peace in the region – then what is stopping them from removing the existing mistrust? There are two permanent irritants that prevent this from happening -- one is the India factor and the other, the border management issue. These can still be sorted out in an amicable manner if the government in Afghanistan stablises its hold on power. A stable and popular government in Afghanistan can do wonders for Pakistan and can also ensure better border management.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2016.
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