The unilateral border closure by Pakistan on February 15 once again exposed the current extremely brittle and acrimonious nature of its current relations with Afghanistan. Slogans such as “Death to Pakistan, Down with Pakistan,” not only resonated at rallies in Kabul and Jalalabad but also made super-leads of the newspapers and electronic media in Afghanistan.Similar sentiments ran high also during a meeting between a Pakistani civil society delegation and the top hierarchy of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) on February 19 at Kabul, a day after Pakistan had handed Afghan officials a list of 76 wanted terrorists nestled in their country. Expectedly, Kabul responded with its list of 85 Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders on the Pakistani soil, which it claimed were involved in “crimes against people of Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, thousands of cargo trucks, passenger vehicles and tens of thousands of people are stranded on both sides of the border. A humanitarian and business crisis indeed, with scores of families separated, and perishable cargo rotting on board trucks.
Leading businessmen were all outrage, complaining of massive losses they have suffered in the last five or so years due to intermittent closure of border. It has also resulted in a drastic reduction of Afghanistan’s transit trade through Pakistan. They pointed out that Iran’s Bandar Abbas is more expensive but that is a much more certain and secure rate. Trust on Karachi is minimal due to corruption from the clearing processes in Karachi to the transition through the border at Chaman and Torkham. In many cases massive demurrage charges accruing from delays forced the importers to abandon their cargo. Afghan traders also complained of unusually high taxes on seasonal fruits. We asked them whether one could delink business from politics and whether business could function normally in abnormal political conditions such as the current ones, they offered little response. The halt in human and commercial cargo, allegations and exchange of lists of wanted terrorists is a bitter reminder of what has bedevilled the Pakistan-India relations too for decades. It hasn’t taken the two countries anywhere forward. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are reeling from a spate of terrorist attacks in January and February thus far — which have taken over 400 lives. Speaking to the visiting Track 1.5 delegation, acting foreign minister Hikmet Karzai and extremely highly-placed officials at NDS indicated their readiness to “in-depth discussions” on contentious issues. If the Afghan Taliban are providing the umbrella and sanctuaries for the TTP, Jamaatul Ahrar, ETIM, IMU, Chechen terrorists and Jundullah, why not confront them jointly, asked an official.
Most Afghan officials, however, refuse to look at the latest wave of terror in the context of India’s “teach and bleed Pakistan” policy. They would not like to relate the current wave of terror with what former Indian army chief Gen Bikram Singh told a national TV recently; asked how to deal with Pakistan he offered this recipe; If we can fuel insurrectionist movements in Pakistan (ref Balochistan), its army will start looking inwards instead of thinking of Kashmir. We have to refocus them on internal conditions. It will be possible only when we will spill their blood through asymmetric means. No military establishment will overlook such posturing from across the border. Neither will it dismiss the possibility of another country’s soil being used for “spilling the blood”.
This complicated context makes it all the more important for Afghan and Pakistani officials to resume their dialogue for the larger benefit of millions of suffering common people. Meaningful talks on Information sharing among the security or resumption of dialogue on modern border management as a means to control and monitor human and cargo traffic via international crossings could offer a meeting point. Both must shun the past baggage and move on for a sincere, substantial dialogue to ease human suffering and normalise relations.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2017.