The recent visit by army chief General Raheel Sharif to Afghanistan and the earlier visit by the incoming Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to Islamabad bodes well for relations between the neighbours. We are hopeful that if there is some unanimity of views, as the usual press releases claim, there will be more cooperation between the two countries which will benefit us all.
But there is resentment in Kabul amongst people over the role that the Pakistani state has played in their country. In fact, while Indians and other South Asians are welcomed in most of Afghanistan, Pakistanis are treated with hostility. That is possibly why most Afghan prisons have a number of Pakistan nationals lodged in them – many of whom are suffering on account of trumped up charges.
The Pakistan Embassy can do little to have them freed and it all comes down to goodwill that we can help our fellow nationals to come back home. That goodwill is mostly missing.
The Afghan intelligence agency views Pakistani nationals on the streets of Kabul with suspicion while the Pakistan Embassy warns nationals to stay indoors if and when there is a terrorist attack in any Afghan city. This is a sad state of affairs.
I wonder how things have come to this. In some ways as a Pakistani, I am angry at how the Afghans have forgotten their way in which Pakistan welcomed them with open arms when the Soviets invaded their country in 1979. Pakistan has the distinction of hosting the largest number of refugees in the world – the bulk of them Afghan.
In fact, now that many of them have gone back to their home country, a little bit of Pakistan has gone along with them. Even today in the most remote parts of Afghanistan, you find people speaking Urdu, drinking chai and playing cricket. Why could we not build on that?
Possibly this has to do with our state’s geo-strategic interests which include checking the expansion of Indian interests in Afghanistan. It seems, however, that this policy has come at a heavy cost.
It was interesting, therefore, to listen to the views of some Afghan journalists some time back, in which they told me what they felt was wrong between their country and ours. In the most interesting comparison, they told me that we treated Afghanistan the same way India treats us.
Afghans feel that Pakistanis make no effort to understand them or their country. This is quite true. For one, we call them Afghani (which is the name of their currency) instead of Afghan. And we are quick to stereotype them as people who need us to guide them as if they are incapable of doing it on their own.
Then we blame them as the cause of many of our problems. How many times have I heard Pakistanis blame the Afghan refugees for the drug and Kalashnikov culture in our country – as if this was done exclusively by them and no Pakistani had any role in it.
The Afghans also feel that we are patronizing in our attitude. This again is true. We make no effort to understand their society and its issues and try to prescribe solutions for them. We seem to have everything figured out.
How do we move ahead? To start with, we need to station Pakistani journalists in Afghanistan who can report accurately about that country. From what I understand there is not one full time Pakistani correspondent based there.
Second, we need to start making a serious effort to talk to the Afghans and not sermonize all the time. This includes exchange of ideas and information as well as the visit of delegations and youth groups. Our young people should be dispelled of the notion that everything about Afghanistan is related to terrorism and it is unsafe to go there.
Third, our public and private sector needs to invest more in Afghanistan. Till now we are only trading with them and there are few examples of Pakistani direct investment in Afghanistan. Pakistani businesses will make money but also earn goodwill if we go in now and agree to some joint ventures.
Let us start building bridges. For too long we have been burning them at an altar that we ourselves are confused about. There must be more clarity in our relations with Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2014.