Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Friday sought to move his country away from a ‘relationship of suspicion’ with Pakistan towards one based on ‘mutual economic dependence’ as he kicked off his two-day visit aimed at rebuilding ties between the two neighbours fraught by mutual distrust and cross-border tensions.
“We have lived in an environment of suspicion which was an obstacle to transforming the region into a hub of economic prosperity,” Ghani told a gathering of businessmen from both countries in Islamabad. “Mutual economic dependence is the key to prosperity… alone we can strive but together we can thrive,” he added.
As Ghani, unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, struck a positive note at the start of his maiden visit, the Pakistan military said the security of the two countries was ‘inextricably linked’ with each other.
The highlight of Ghani’s engagements on the first day of his trip was a visit to the GHQ in Rawalpindi soon after landing in Islamabad – an unprecedented move since it is rare that a visiting head of state stops over at the military headquarters. The visit appears to underline efforts from the two sides as they enter a new ‘era of cooperation’.
Ghani, who was accompanied by Afghan Defence Minister General Bismillah Muhammadi, Chief of General Staff General Sher Muhammad Karimi and senior Afghan security officials, was received by army chief General Raheel Sharif at the GHQ.
“A smartly turned-out contingent of the Pakistan Army presented him the guard of honour. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani laid a floral wreath at the Shuhada monument and offered Fateha,” said a statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).
The statement said the visiting delegation was given detailed briefing on security situation on the Pak-Afghan border. Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Defence Secretary Lt Gen (retd) Alam Khattak and ISI Director General Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar were also present.
The Afghan president appreciated Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism and sacrifices rendered by the nation. He said Afghanistan wanted to bolster security and defence ties with Pakistan including cooperation in training and border management. He also assured of Afghan cooperation to jointly curb the menace of terrorism.
Ghani’s trip took place amid a positive atmosphere and that border cooperation was focused upon, DG ISPR Maj-Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa said on micro-blogging site Twitter.
Talking to The Express Tribune on condition of anonymity, a security official said there was a ‘greater realisation’ on both sides that they needed to move beyond the past bickering.
Relations between the two neighbours remained tense during Karzai’s tenure who often accused Pakistan’s security establishment of sheltering Afghan insurgents. Islamabad dismissed such accusations and instead pointed fingers at Kabul for doing little to stop cross-border attacks by Pakistani Taliban.
There was visible change in the atmospheric as the Afghan president avoided the blame game and talked of building a new cooperative relationship.
Speaking to businessmen later in the day, Ghani offered a short to long-term framework for economic and commercial ties between both the countries. He also offered his country as a ‘land bridge’ between Pakistan and Central Asia and sought the same facility from Pakistan for trade with India. He vowed to increase bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2017 and offered a one-year regional cooperation plan besides seeking four-year targets for bilateral cooperation. He said mutual cooperation may result in additional one percentage points to the increase in economic growth, which will lift thousands of people out of poverty.
Ghani announced that as a result of bilateral talks that continued during last two days Pakistan has agreed to clear 95% of Afghan goods imported under bilateral transit trade within 24 hours and the remaining within two days of imports.
He said the step would facilitate a lot as Afghanistan’s importers had paid $500 million demerge charges to Pakistan.
Both the countries have agreed to change the inspection regimes and Pakistan has allowed Afghanistan’s transportation to move across its territory, said the Afghan president. He offered Pakistan to setup common supply chains.
Pakistan has also agreed to lower tariffs to facilitate Afghanistan, said Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. He said the formal announcement will be made today (Saturday) by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan has agreed to lower charges for ports and storage facilities.
“The visit is important as it demonstrates that both Pakistan and Afghan sides are showing great flexibility in resolving the outstanding issues between the two countries,” said Dar. He said both the countries have agreed to remove all impediments to trade. Both countries have also agreed to alternate dispute resolution mechanisms.
The Minister for Commerce, Khurram Dastgir offered to hold talks on the Bilateral Preferential Trade Agreement besides offering to train Afghan customs officials.
Dastgir assured early operationalisation of Ghulam Khan Border post in North Afghanistan agency as soon as security situation allows. The customs check post has been closed due to the ongoing Military Operation in the North Waziristan Agency.
The Afghan president also met his Pakistan counterpart Mamnoon Hussain where they discussed important bilateral and regional issues. JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman also called on the Afghan leader to discuss efforts to strike a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 15th, 2014.