Islamabad and Kabul: A Floundering Relationship
The diplomatic backlash from Afghan and US officials to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent comments regarding the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan shows how quickly emotions and regional tensions can be inflamed in the sensitive matter of Afghan politics.
During an interaction with local journalists, Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly said that the formation of an interim government would help facilitate the Afghan peace process and was additionally quoted as saying that the Afghan government, which isn’t part of ongoing US-Taliban negotiations, was “a hurdle in the peace process.”
The remarks were seized and used by the national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani to vent its pent-up feelings about Pakistan. It termed Imran Khan’s comment “irresponsible” and recalled its ambassador from Pakistan as a mark of protest.
The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it deemed such statements “an obvious example of Pakistan’s interventional policy and disrespect to the national sovereignty and determination of the people of Afghanistan.”
What the backlash truly reflects, is Pakistan’s poor relationship with Afghanistan and the US. Though relations with the US have shown signs of improvement due to Pakistan’s facilitation in talks with the Afghan Taliban, misgivings remain. The US has halted security assistance to Pakistan citing lack of support in its anti-terrorism efforts and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently mentioned the proliferation of Pakistan’s nuclear program as one of the five big threats to American security.
In Afghanistan’s case, a deep mistrust has haunted the uneasy relationship between the two neighboring countries. Afghanistan has refused to recognize the Durand Line as an international border and made strong diplomatic overtures with India, Pakistan’s arch-rival. Islamabad and Kabul frequently accuse each other of harboring militants threatening their security. The Afghan government blames Pakistan for providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network. Islamabad has been claiming that Pakistani Taliban and Baloch separatists use Afghanistan’s soil to destabilize Pakistan.
Though Pakistan’s relations with the US have shown signs of improvement due to the former’s facilitation in talks with the Afghan Taliban, misgivings remain.
Following the backlash to Imran Khan’s comments, Pakistan’s foreign ministry later issued a clarification that the Prime Minister had been reported “out of context … leading to an unwarranted reaction.” But the damage had been done. The critics were unforgiving and unwilling to accept the clarification.
The beleaguered Afghan government, angry at being sidelined in ongoing US-Taliban peace talks, did not let go of the opportunity to reinforce itself as a defender of Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Perhaps a quick and tough response from the Afghan side was even more of a political necessity with the election campaign for the delayed Afghan presidential election about to begin.
The diplomatic row was further inflamed when the US ambassador in Kabul, John R. Bass, jumped into the controversy on Twitter and advised Prime Minister Khan to resist the temptation to “ball-tamper with the Afghanistan peace process and its internal affairs”.
It was apparent that Ambassador Bass’s use of cricket terminology was aimed directly at Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricketer.
“Some aspects of cricket apply well in diplomacy, some do not,” he wrote in his tweet.
This didn’t go down well with Pakistan’s minister for human rights Dr. Shireen Mazari, who questioned the ambassador’s knowledge of cricket. Calling Bass a “little pygmy,” she raised questions about the US Ambassador’s understanding of Afghanistan and the region and termed it another sign of “Trumpian mischief a la Khalilzad style!”
Mazari’s reference to Khalilzad came after he dubbed Imran Khan’s comments “inappropriate” but the envoy’s relations with Pakistan have been prickly from the start. Before becoming special envoy to lead the US delegation in talks with the Taliban, he argued that Pakistan should be declared a state sponsor of terrorism for harboring Taliban militants who are attacking the Afghan government.
– Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998.