Pakistan and Afghanistan need to take a pause
There are no signs of tensions easing between Pakistan and Taliban rulers in Afghanistan. A senior Pakistani official said late last month that the Taliban representative in Islamabad was summoned to the foreign office and a protest lodged over a suicide attack carried out on a security forces convoy in Bannu district by an Afghan national. The Hafiz Gul Bahadar group claimed responsibility, which Pakistani security officials claim operates from inside Afghanistan. For their part, the Taliban reject Pakistan’s assertions about the use of Afghan soil by militants.
Pakistani and Taliban officials have been involved in harsh statements in recent weeks following a spike in attacks in parts of the country, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister said last month that the day Kabul had a legitimate government, issues would start ‘settling down.’ In a quick reaction, the chief spokesman of the Afghan interim government told BBC Pashto that relations would improve when there was “wise leadership” in Pakistan.
The tit-for-tat responses reflect the deepening mistrust between Pakistan and Taliban rulers in Afghanistan at a time when cooperation among neighbours is required to deal with key issues, especially the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the repatriation of Afghans.
Pakistan’s relations and diplomacy with Afghanistan since the Taliban take-over in August 2021 seems to have lost its direction and consistency. During the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency against the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan for two decades, Pakistan maintained relatively stable engagement and channels of communication with Afghanistan on key bilateral issues from border security, to transit trade and refugees.
But by the beginning of 2022, a gulf began appearing between the Afghan interim government and Pakistan. The Afghan government continued to adamantly rebut any demands for inclusivity, human rights and media freedoms. In March 2022, it formally announced a decision to prevent girls’ entry into high schools. It also snubbed Pakistan by not attending the regular OIC Foreign Ministers’ session hosted by Pakistan that same month.
While many other countries of the region and beyond are increasing their engagement with the Afghan interim government, the differences between Afghanistan and Pakistan are intensifying.
Around the same time, stark differences were developing between the two countries with regard to Pakistan’s demand for action against TTP fighters and commanders based in Afghanistan. The acting Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani organized a few rounds of peace negotiations between Pakistani officials and TTP commanders in Kabul. However, this process too fell apart, coinciding with the changes in Pakistan in political and security setups. By the end of 2022, the TTP declared it was abandoning the ceasefire and asked its militants to start attacks on security forces in Pakistan. This has not shown any signs of abating and has continued to intensify to date.
Pakistan’s efforts to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban to get a favorable response on the TTP issue has not produced its desired results. It seems Pakistan in turn has decided to respond with tougher measures such as restricting visas, imposing a one document condition for travel of any Afghan to Pakistan and curbs on transit and trade facilities.
The latest measures from Pakistan came in the form of deporting all undocumented Afghans with effect from November 1. Unlike in the past, this time the deportation started as per its announced plan.
These developments led to public resentment in Afghanistan and adverse statements from Afghan Taliban leaders including the prime minister, the defence minister, the interior minister and the foreign minister. The defence minister’s statement is not only critical, but also entails a warning to Pakistan for the consequences of such measures.
With tempers rising and tensions increasing, Pakistan’s security and economic interests are seriously affected. First, with the lack of any institutional and official channels of engagement between the two sides, the 2,600 km long Pakistan-Afghanistan border region inhabiting over 50 million people on both sides remains mired in instability, militancy and violence.
Secondly, while many other countries of the region and beyond are increasing their engagement with the Afghan interim government, the differences between Afghanistan and Pakistan are intensifying. As the row with Pakistan on refugee issues is escalating, a high-level Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar visited Tehran last week and discussed the strengthening of cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar was taken to Chabahar Port, which is considered an alternate route to the Karachi ports being used by Afghan businessmen under the 1965 Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA).
In view of the continuously deteriorating bilateral equation, it is important for both sides to comprehend that Pakistan and Afghanistan have shared concerns and interests. The challenges of border security, militancy, refugees and undocumented Afghans in Pakistan are complex and require focused efforts from both sides to revive institutional channels and leadership engagement.
Only this course of action can help the two countries to reach a sustainable peace and realize the potential for regional economic integration and connectivity.
it is imperative for the two countries to take a pause and look at the aspirations of their two peoples for friendly relations.
– Tahir Khan is a senior journalist covering Afghan affairs.