Pakistan-Afghanistan: From paradox to potential
Can Pakistan-Afghanistan shed off the paradox of major commonalities and deep distrust, and the dichotomies that strangle the immense potential for cooperation in-built in the location and population of these two countries?
The disconnect has grown... and continues to grow. In the latest round of tensions with Islamabad identifying Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) sanctuary linkages to Afghanistan in the backdrop of an increase in militant attacks, the return of 1.7 million unregistered refugees to Afghanistan was ordered. This act has yet again filled digital, political and emotional spaces with sheer blame games.
Pakistan has few supporters of Islamabad’s original one-month deadline to unregistered Afghan refugees to leave Pakistan. Even those supporting the eventual return of Afghan refugees have called for a well thought out and transparent return plan. Significantly, in the fluid, free-wheeling and feisty online space, any quick-fix and shoddily communicated response to serious matters like militancy will earn Pakistan outrage at home and abroad.
Significantly, there is no indication from Kabul or Kandahar that the return of Afghan refugees will force them to take any action against the TTP. Any bilateral conversation will unlikely lead to any action by Kabul. To some extent the Afghan Taliban remain indebted to TTP’s past help. This is a fact that the Afghan Taliban concede in private meetings.
The tensions over Pakistan’s ‘refugee return’ policy persist but fortunately even today, Pakistan-Afghan relations are rarely reduced to zero-sum zones.
I remember one morning my brother said goodbye to the family, and took off on a motorbike with friends in tow. In the following weeks, mail would trickle in with his photographs standing in Kabul, in Tehran and beyond. Times have now changed.
The past was another time-- a happier time of the 60’s when criss-crossing through lands west of Pakistan, like Afghanistan and Iran, was an easy affair. I remember one morning my brother said goodbye to the family, and took off on a motorbike with friends in tow. In the following weeks, mail would trickle in with his photographs standing in Kabul, in Tehran and beyond.
Times have now changed. Young motorcyclists, families, friends traveling for short periods across the region to the west of Pakistan to watch movies, for weekend recreation or to have fun, have been replaced by a completely different reality.
A new state born into difficult circumstances including resentful neighbors and major power-rivalry, Pakistan’s relationship trajectory with its western neighbor has been marked with political and military upheavals. Interestingly, despite significant demographic, cultural and trade connectivity among a sizeable Pakistan-Afghanistan population, the strategic antagonism between the governments has kept the bilateral ecosystem un-conducive to expanding good neighborly relations. In the early decades, Pakistan-Afghan relations vacillated to extremes with the Afghan government dispatching troops to occupy Pakistani territory and Pakistan proposing a confederate arrangement between the two neighbors.
The 1979 Soviet invasion and subsequent US-financed and Pakistan-based Afghan insurgency of the 80s and 90s created an intricate dynamic of great familiarity, suspicion and antagonism.
The post-1979 hyper-reality may not have been triggered by Pakistan but indeed our government chose to become an integral part of the reality of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Agha Shahi, Pakistan’s legendary diplomat and foreign minister would often recall he had told military ruler General Zia ul Haq, who led Pakistan into the CIA’s engineered protracted covert operation, that only a handshake with the Americans over Afghanistan would do-- not an embrace. After Shahi’s departure the ‘embrace’ continued with its massive repercussions that continue to influence even today, with a mostly strained but inter-reliant relationship between two neighbors.
The cumulative impact of a plethora of big ticket items have defined the current state of bilateral relations: the influx into Pakistan of over three million Afghan refugees, the sanctuaries in Pakistan for Afghan fighters targeting first the Soviets and subsequently the Afghans in Kabul, the decades’ long war between US-led NATO forces and Afghan Taliban, Kabul’s sheltering of Pakistani Taliban yet with bilateral trade links still operational and the renegotiation of the Transit Trade Agreement (TTA). The paradox of cooperation and confrontation remains.
For example, in early November at the Tashkent ECO summit, the paradox of excessive strain and excessive co-dependence of this relationship was spelt out by Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister. Within 24 hours he bluntly asked Kabul to choose between Islamabad or TTP insurgents based in Afghanistan. The next day, PM Kakar spoke of Afghanistan’s centrality in the success of regional connectivity.
More recently alongside Kabul’s continuing complaints against returning refugees, Afghanistan’s Commerce Minister was in Islamabad for the trilateral Pakistan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan trade talks. According to the Afghan commerce ministry’s statement, a trilateral technical group would meet this week to identify ways to increase regional trade through joint investments and improved transit facilities.
Pakistan-Afghanistan relations have almost always been unstable with Kabul and Islamabad at odds with one another. 75 years later, the pattern of oscillating between engagement and antagonism still holds.
Steering wisely through paradoxes in a holistic and comprehensive way is at the core of improving Pak-Afghan relations. To the extent Pakistan understands the centrality of its relations with Afghanistan for trade, commerce and security, it must patiently steer bilateral and regional relations.
– Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert.