During my recent two-day visit to Kabul (May 3 to 5) I gained some useful insights into the thinking of the country’s policymakers about their relations with Pakistan. The visit was at the invitation of the Afghan government and I was treated to the proverbial Afghan hospitality. I stayed at the Palace which, in itself, was an experience. This century-old building that housed some of the kings in the past was gutted during the Civil War that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. Those who ransacked the place destroyed the elaborate paintings that adorned the walls of the Palace. They cut off the heads of the animals that were in the paintings. According to their primitive view of Islam, it was against the religion to draw images of any living creature.
Although I was the recipient of full protocol, was accompanied by three individuals all the time, and was in a large car clearly marked “official”, we were stopped dozens of times everywhere we went. Even to enter the Palace the car was looked into and its driver questioned about ten times. The room where I was lodged was checked for, I suppose, explosive devices. I mention all this in order to convey to the Pakistani people the sense of fear and insecurity in which the Afghan citizens live. There are fears about security in Pakistan as well but these don’t come anywhere near when we compare them to what I saw in Afghanistan. It is from this angle that we should view the Afghan complaints when they say – which they do often and openly – that they are not happy with the level of assistance they are getting from Pakistan. They had expected much more.
I had long conversations with President Ashraf Ghani and Hadayat Amin Arsalan about their impressions of the state of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. I got to know these Afghan leaders well when all of us worked at the World Bank. There was a great deal of mutual respect and trust built up amongst the three of us during our time at the Bank. It was because of this that we were able to talk openly and freely. The purpose of this article is not to divulge the details of these conversations but to convey to the people of Pakistan the feelings the Afghan people and their leaders have about their situation and their country’s evolving relations with their neighbour.
In the conversations with several relatively junior officials I came across during my stay in Kabul, it was abundantly clear how deep were the scars left by the three and a half decades of wars that have been fought in their territory. The wounds are deep and will take a long time to heal. I don’t think there is enough understanding in Pakistan about the combined feelings of fear, anger and frustration. Broad statements of support from the Pakistani leadership will not do. Some specific actions had to be taken and taken quickly.
The main purpose for writing this article is to help develop a better appreciation in Pakistan for the Afghan views about their current situation, about how they read their prospects and how they would like to achieve a better future for themselves. In all of this they see Pakistan’s role as critical and most of them strongly believe that their neighbor can and should do more. A sampling of the Afghan mood can be gleaned from the front page of one issue of the Afghanistan Times, the English-language daily I read while waiting for the delayed PIA flight to Kabul. On May 5, the newspaper’s headline screamed: “Pakistan never supported peace in Afghanistan”. The story was about the briefing provided to the members of the Wolesi Jirga – the lower house of the Afghan parliament – by the country’s security establishment. A number of members of Parliament spoke to the press after the briefing. One of them by the name of Zahir Qadir said that “Islamabad had never cooperated with Afghanistan in bringing peace and stability to their country.” There were several other stories on the front page, all related to the security situation.
My conversations in Kabul as well as what I saw covered in the press underscored the following three facts about the Afghan situation. One, with the American and foreign troops gone, the country is extremely anxious about what lies ahead. There is almost total conviction in the country that Pakistan is looking the other way as Afghanistan plunges into darkness. Even a two-day stay in Kabul was enough to show me the high economic and psychological costs of the concerns about security.
The second important fact concerns Pakistan’s role in helping the country deal with the current unsustainable situation. There is a strong belief in the country that Pakistan is not fully exercising itself to help stem the tide of growing violence in Afghanistan. President Ghani was very clear about expressing this belief in his long conversation with me. If the level of violence worsens in the current fighting season his effort to repair the long-tattered relations with Pakistan will come to naught.
The third element in the Afghan thinking is more positive. Several people in policymaking positions are convinced that a strong link between the two countries could make them the core of a new regional association that will have palpable economic and political impact on the rest of the world. The American withdrawal, greater Chinese assertiveness, growing tensions between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam in the Arab world, and the rise of the Islamic State have created the need for a strong multi-state hub. Kabul and Islamabad must work together to provide it.
How should these concerns and hopes be addressed? It appears to me that the approach followed up until now in Islamabad had been episodic rather than strategic. Kabul and Islamabad have worked together when an event such as the December 2014 attack on the Peshawar Army Public School occurred. What is needed – and needed urgently – is a multi-dimensional plan of action with a well-defined timeline to (a) address the poor security situation in both countries; (b) to work out in some detail the intended plan of action; and (c) to keep the plan under watch. A special commission should be set up to be jointly managed and staffed by the people from both sides. The NATO is a model that can be followed. The proposed Commission should have a joint secretariat to keep the developing situation under constant review. Such an approach would create a sense of confidence in the two countries about each other’s intentions. This confidence is lacking at this moment.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2015.