Good Afghan relations are crucial to Pakistan’s neighborhood policy

Good Afghan relations are crucial to Pakistan’s neighborhood policy

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Relations with Afghanistan are most vital for Pakistan’s stability and neighborhood policy. Pakistan’s relations with its other three neighbors – India, China and Iran – have clear parameters. But it is Afghanistan that remains a defining factor for Pakistan’s foreign policy. 

The people and economy of the two countries are intertwined through bonds of history, geography, and cultural linkages. The 2,600 km long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is inhabited by millions on both sides with the same faith, culture and economy. Facilitative border management providing movement of people and economic interactions are vital conditions for peace, stability, and the progress of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and for Pakistan’s role in the region. Isolating the two countries and societies from each other is unnatural, and impossible. 

Interventions by global powers in the last 50 years have shattered internal equilibrium, peace, and stability in Afghanistan, and of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Throughout these years, while Pakistan firmly stood with Afghanistan in testing times, it has found it difficult to deal with challenges at some crucial moments. Pakistan has an image crisis among common Afghans which has continued to harm its vital interests. 

Following the US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Pakistan is trapped in a situation where its relations with Afghanistan are on the brink. It’s ironic that Pakistan’s relations with an Afghan state controlled by the Taliban have deteriorated beyond imagination, while the countries opposing or fighting the Taliban during the past two decades are gradually building relations with them. 

Pakistan has an image crisis among common Afghans which has continued to harm its vital interests. 

Mansoor Khan

Militancy is without doubt, a serious and immediate challenge for Pakistan. The ideological linkages between the Afghan Taliban and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are strong and substantial funding is also available to these groups through Pakistan’s detractors who pursue agendas of de-stabilizing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. 

Therefore, what Pakistan needs is a strong domestic counter-terrorism policy along with a more pragmatic and skilful approach for meaningful engagement with Afghanistan to counter these moves. Disengagement will further exacerbate challenges to Pakistan’s security and stability. 

Another important aspect of the evolving Afghan situation is that though Afghanistan is internationally not fully recognized, indications are that its leadership’s interaction with the world is progressively expanding. The US and the West at large have continued to increase their engagement with the Taliban leadership in Doha. The UN has maintained liquidity in Afghanistan through an injection of $40-$50 million in cash every week as humanitarian assistance despite banking restrictions in Afghanistan. 

The UN is also planning to invite the Afghan Taliban to Doha III scheduled for 30 June. But whether the Taliban participate in Doha III or not, it’s quite evident that the normalization between Afghan Taliban and the world is already underway. 

Travel sanctions against Taliban leaders are already being selectively removed. During the past few weeks, Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has been under a UN travel ban and a US bounty of $10 million, traveled to the UAE and met President Shaikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Haqqani and a group of senior Taliban leaders have also traveled to Saudi Arabia for performing Hajj. Reportedly, Russia is also evaluating removing the Taliban from their domestic terror listing. These developments clearly suggest a softening of the international community’s stance in its interactions with the Afghan Taliban. 

In this situation, it is imperative for Pakistan to work out a model of stable engagement with the Afghan interim government on movements, economic interaction and security/terrorism issues. Previous militarized channels have to give way to political level interaction and state-to-state contacts. The movement of people has to be given priority. Pakistan’s policy of the documented movement of people can be implemented in a phased manner in consultation with Afghan authorities, keeping in view the socio-economic needs of the people living on both sides of the border. 

Facilitating Afghan trade and transit is also a vital need for Pakistan, to be the geo-economic pivot for wider regional connectivity. The decrease in Pakistan-Afghanistan trade and transit is being filled by other competitors. The two sides need to adopt a conciliatory approach for addressing this issue through bilateral dialogue. 

Progress in these areas will enable Pakistan to utilize social and economic stakes for achieving the Afghan state’s cooperation in curbing cross-border terrorism. These efforts should be supplemented by a proactive role in regional counter-terrorism efforts. It will enhance convergence with China for a collective approach for combating militant threats.

The strengthening of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, especially economic interaction and trade and transit mechanisms, will enhance the prospects of developing partnerships with neighbors and regional countries, including China, Arab countries, Iran, Russia, Turkiye and Central Asian countries for trans-Afghan energy and infrastructure projects. 

The bottom line is that an approach of comprehensive engagement with the Afghan interim government, particularly focusing on people-related issues, will pave the way for securing Pakistan’s long border with Afghanistan as well as for promoting Pakistan’s regional interaction. Relations with Afghanistan are the first rung of the ladder for Pakistan’s neighborhood policy.

- Mansoor Ahmad Khan is Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan. Former ambassador of Pakistan to Austria & PR to UN Vienna. Ex Chairman UN CND. Twitter @ambmansoorkhan

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view