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Mending fences with Kabul

Moonis Ahmar
In a meeting of National Security Committee (NSC) held in Islamabad on August 16 it was decided to mend fences with Kabul by unfreezing diplomatic, political and security ties with Afghanistan and to address issues which are a cause of fomenting irritants between the two neighbours. In a major development, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaking in a presidential palace in Kabul on September 1 expressed his country’s readiness to hold talks in order to normalize relations with Pakistan because according to him, “Afghanistan was ready for comprehensive political talks. Peace with Pakistan is in our national agenda.” Is breakthrough in Pak-Afghan ties in offing?Can the two countries learn lessons from the unpleasant episodes of the past and move beyond so as to better their present and future?
Mending fences with Afghanistan cannot be a one-way traffic because since the inception of Pakistan as a new state in August 1947 till today, Kabul sustained its indifferent and hostile policy vis-à-vis its eastern neighbour by first casting a negative vote in the UN on Pakistan’s membership; challenging the Durand line; blaming Pakistan of cross border interference and sponsoring groups involved in terrorist acts. Yet, despite Trump’s tirade against Pakistan in his major policy speech of August 21 on South Asia in which he termed the existence of ‘safe heaven’ responsible for supporting Taliban groups attacking U.S and Afghan forces, recent ostensible breakthrough in Pak-Afghan relations is a major positive development.A joint working group formed by the militaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan which was agreed upon during talks held between Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his Afghan counterpart General Sharif Yaftali in the sidelines of Quadrilateral Counter-Terrorism Coordination Mechanism meeting held in Dushanbe in August is meant to jointly work for formulation of security recommendation for governmental level in order to address mutual security concerns. No doubt, it is another headway in mending fences between Kabul and Islamabad at the military level. Earlier, the Chief of Army Staff had an important meeting with Afghan Ambassador Dr Omar Zakhulwal in GHQ on August 2 in which efforts to mend fences were discussed.Furthermore, a visit by an Afghan military delegation to Islamabad and convening of a meeting of the Pak-Afghan Joint Economic Commission in August also reflected transformation in the approach and policy of Pakistan and Afghanistan to unleash the process of normalization in their age old hostile relations. The recent visit of Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua to Kabul and her talks with Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai is perceived as a qualitative change in Pak-Afghan relations.
Mending fences with Afghanistan is an uphill task and needs to be examined by taking into account four major requirements from both sides. First, prudence and sanity demands that Afghanistan and Pakistan instead of engaging in blame game, allegations and counter allegations see the reality on the ground and establish a sound mechanism to prevent any future crisis and conflict. Holding of ill-will, suspicion, mistrust and paranoia which tends to jeopardise relations between Kabul and Islamabad must be replaced with constructive engagement for augmenting trade, commercial and meaningful cooperation in security, political, cultural and educational fields.
After all, people of Afghanistan and Pakistan possess centuries old historical, cultural and religious ties which needs to be strengthened. Second, mending fences requires a positive transformation of conflict in Pak-Afghan relations along with cessation of hostile propaganda against each other. Unfortunately, the holding of enemy images in some segments of Afghan society against Pakistan is a reality as anti-Pak sentiments seems to have gained ground in Afghanistan after 9/11. What Pakistan can do to transform ‘enemy images’ in Afghanistan in a positive direction and what sort of space Islamabad can have in that conflict ridden country? Can Pakistan address Kabul’s demand not to erect fence along the Pak-Afghan border and follow a policy of strict neutrality in its internal affairs?Realistically speaking, Kabul must understand Pakistan’s concerns which emanate from Afghanistan’s failure to prevent those groups who launch terrorist attacks on Pakistan from its soil. Furthermore, Pakistan also laments that Kabul has failed to restrain India use its territory for launching subversive activities in Pakistan particularly in the turbulent province of Balochistan. That the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is involved in conducting terrorist activities inside Pakistan through its network in Afghanistan. It is the responsibility of the Kabul regime and the United States to take appropriate steps against all such groups who are involved against Pakistan from the Afghan soil.
Third, mending fences in Pak-Afghan relations also requires political will and determination on the part of both sides to sustain the process of dialogue.

It is a positive sign that both the Afghan and Pakistani leadership in the recent past agreed to take practical measures for avoiding further schism in their ties and adopt confidence-building measures particularly at the military level to mitigate tension along Pak-Afghan borders. As far as Afghan reservation on fencing the long Pak-Afghan border is concerned, the two sides can certainly discuss that matter so that it is resolved amicably. In fact, if the Afghan side takes appropriate measures to prevent TTP and other hostile groups having foreign support operating in Pakistan, in that case, there will be no need to erect a fence along the Pak-Afghan border.

Finally, Pakistan must take steps to diminish ‘enemy images’ and negative perceptions prevailing in Afghanistan. For decades, the security establishment of Pakistan pursued a flawed policy on Afghanistan by patronizing some Afghan groups to seize and sustain power. Had Pakistan remained neutral when the Soviets had militarily intervened in Afghanistan and in the post-9/11 period after the overthrow of Taliban regime, anti-Pakistan feelings in Afghanistan would not have deepened. Patronizing Pashtun Mujahideen groups in the course of Afghan civil war (1992-1996) and Taliban regime (1996-2001) was another strategic blunder committed by Islamabad with lethal repercussions. There is still time for Pakistan to take “damage control measures” so as to create positive image among the Afghans who still consider Islamabad responsible for the destruction of their country.

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