Time for a rethink

-and time waits for none!

One of our delegates attending the Pakistan-Afghanistan Bilateral Dialogue in Herat earlier this month said by way of argument that it would be better for Afghanistan and Pakistan to be friends first before we became brothers. It elicited an immediate response from one of the Afghan delegates who said with intense emotion: “We are brothers and no one can take this away from us”. Paradoxically, therein may rest the problem that Afghanistan and Pakistan have faced spanning the entire chequered history of their relations: proclaiming to be brothers without being friends.

On the invitation of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), I led a nine-member Regional Peace Institute (RPI) delegation to attend the Herat Security Dialogue IV on October 2-3 and the subsequent Afghanistan-Pakistan Bilateral Dialogue on October 4, a process put together jointly by the AISS and RPI. The umbrella theme of the bilateral dialogue was “Afghanistan and Pakistan: Mapping Challenges and Opportunities” and was spread over three sessions discussing “Assessment of recent developments in bilateral relations”, “Terrorism: from diversion to conversion” and the “International perspectives”, the last one being an important session in the sense that we had informed and credible inputs from three experts from the Carnegie, Atlantic Council and the Afghan Analysts Network.

For me personally, the visit provided an immense learning curve as I had a close peep into some of the more volatile sensitivities that contribute to shaping the Afghan narrative. At a different level, the visit afforded an opportunity to interact with a large spectrum of people, some of whom are gradually finding their way into the top echelons of the Afghan ruling elite and policy-makers and have already started making an impact

The Pakistani delegation included stalwarts and established Afghan experts like Afrasiab Khattak, Ayaz Wazir and Aziz Ahmed Khan. It also included Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Lt Gen (R) Asif Yasin Malik, Nasim Zehra, Fauzia Nasreen and Dr Rifaat Hussain. The Afghan delegation was led by Mr Darfur Spanta and included Dr Davood Moradian, Abbas Noyan, Dr Marium Safi, Ambassador Manizha Bakhtari, Shah Mahmud Miakhel, Dr Farugh Azam, Tamim Asey, Nazir Kabiri, Rafiullah Niazi, Ajmal Balouchzada and Hasina Sherjan. The delegation also included two members of the Afghan Parliament: Shah Gul Rezai and Naheed Farid.

For me personally, the visit provided an immense learning curve as I had a close peep into some of the more volatile sensitivities that contribute to shaping the Afghan narrative. At a different level, the visit afforded an opportunity to interact with a large spectrum of people, some of whom are gradually finding their way into the top echelons of the Afghan ruling elite and policy-makers and have already started making an impact.

The Herat Security Dialogue IV had a large gathering of the Indians. Mr Salman Khurshid, a former foreign minister, was the keynote speaker while the Indian ambassadors to Afghanistan and Iran as also their high commissioner to Pakistan were present along with a host of other delegates. Over a hundred-and-fifty delegates from various other countries were also present.

Interestingly, there were areas of convergence, too. The one that most of those present agreed on was that there was a need to divorce the past and make a fresh beginning urgently. The two countries should end sparring in public as that would only aggravate the problem further

Under the umbrella theme of “Islamic Civilisation: Stagnation and Renaissance”, the Herat Security Dialogue IV was spread over two days and seven sessions discussing the subsidiary themes of “Moral and Political Dimensions: Ideas, Institutions, Practices”, State and Challenges for Muslim Women”, “Islam and the Rest: Confrontation, Misunderstanding and Dialogue”, “Afghanistan’s Transformation Decade (2015-2024): Opportunities and Obstacles”, “Cultural and Social Dimensions: Media, Education, Law”, “Herat School of Security: Concepts, Practices and Contemporary Relevance” and “The Way Forward”. Some scholarly presentations were made at various sessions of the moot interspersed with invigorating interludes from an inquisitive audience. The sessions on the state and challenges for Muslim women and the contemporary security concepts and practices were extremely informative.

The bilateral dialogue was a platform that provided us with specific input into the reality on ground in Afghanistan and how policy-makers are endeavouring to transit the country towards divorcing the threat of terror and war. Some of the comments made were laced with the pain that the Afghan people have borne over a long period of time when the country remained deeply immersed in internal fratricide and what is generally perceived as terrorist incursions. One of the comments made by an international expert probably signifies the Afghan narrative in essence: “In Afghanistan, the Taliban defeat was complete: military, emotional and psychological, but not so in Pakistan where there is increasing support for the Taliban, both at the government and the people level”.

Some other areas where the two sides concurred included engagement on the basis of sovereign equality among the two countries, condemnation of the use of terror as an instrument of state policy, initiation of an intra-Afghanistan and intra-Pakistan dialogue to sort out the mess in each country and then engage constructively with each other, narrowing down the trust deficit and not allowing one country’s space to be used against the other country

There was discussion on whether the Taliban can and should be part of the peace process, or whether they should be declared a terrorist outfit. The opinion was sharply divided, but the narrative increasingly gaining ground with the induction of the younger generation into key positions in the government appears to be favouring the latter option.

A dominant ingredient of the presentations was that Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan should not be dependent on the latter’s relations with India. The speakers perceived this tendency as a blatant infringement of Afghanistan’s sovereignty paradigm and its right to take decisions about its future without interference from outside. It was feared that fallout in Afghanistan would not only be dangerous for the two countries, but for the entire region.

The trade route also figured prominently in the discussions. The Afghans demanded this as a matter of right. In the process, they treat this as an issue entirely between Pakistan and Afghanistan expecting that the same should be delinked from Pakistan’s relations with India. They did not want Afghanistan to suffer as a consequence of that imbroglio.

The underlying suspicion with regard to Pakistan’s involvement in the Kunduz attack, though subdued, was also brought forth.

Aggravating situation in Afghanistan was perceived as a major obstacle to the prospect of improving relations between the two neighbouring countries. Questions were also raised regarding Pakistani establishment’s role in hiding Mullah Omar’s death for over two years and anointing Mullah Mansour as the new leader of the Taliban. There was also a widely prevailing belief that Pakistan maintains training grounds for the Taliban and the oath of allegiance to their new chief was administered near Quetta which was fully sponsored by the establishment. Various Taliban leaders, according to one count numbering in hundreds, were virtually escorted to the venue under official protection.

Pakistan’s existent policy towards Afghanistan has failed on numerous counts. It has neither resolved its crisis on the Western border nor has it eased the pressure on the fight-terror front. There is a natural alignment between the two countries and a friendly Afghanistan will automatically lead to India being neutralised in due course. A secure and self-reliant Afghanistan will be a boost to Pakistan’s security and increase its policy permutations and combinations regarding its Eastern neighbour

The Pakistani side strongly put across its case regarding an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. They contended that it was not for Pakistan to finalise a policy of reconciliation in Afghanistan. Pakistan can and is willing to offer support to any such initiative spearheaded by the Afghan government.

Interestingly, there were areas of convergence, too. The one that most of those present agreed on was that there was a need to divorce the past and make a fresh beginning urgently. The two countries should end sparring in public as that would only aggravate the problem further.

Everyone conceded that President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan was a bold initiative which provided a hope for a better future, but much had happened since then which had dampened the enthusiasm considerably. There was bitterness which had crept in, thus further damaging the prospects.

Some other areas where the two sides concurred included engagement on the basis of sovereign equality among the two countries, condemnation of the use of terror as an instrument of state policy, initiation of an intra-Afghanistan and intra-Pakistan dialogue to sort out the mess in each country and then engage constructively with each other, narrowing down the trust deficit and not allowing one country’s space to be used against the other country.

Most of the delegates also agreed that the ball was in Pakistan’s court and it had to take the initiative now. Some contended that, in the aftermath of the Kunduz attack, it could begin by Pakistan’s strong condemnation of all acts of terror.

Pakistan needs a serious rethink. Instead of making its Afghan policy dependent on its relations with India, it should engage Afghanistan proactively regarding how they could move into a future transcending the stranglehold of a bitter past and an array of hopes shattered and promises unfulfilled. Remaining glued to a flawed policy with an overdose of India-centricity in its approach towards its Western neighbour would work to the detriment of both countries.

The coming days bring challenges that are going to be more profound than anything faced in the past as Pakistan and Afghanistan struggle to put their respective house in order. The line between low-intensity conflict and utter chaos is becoming increasingly thin. A divorce from the past, building on the numerous commonalities and the initiation of a joint and consultative approach could help the two countries in successfully addressing the growing threat perception in the region from multiple sources while continued and counterproductive antagonism would further compound the crisis

Pakistan’s existent policy towards Afghanistan has failed on numerous counts. It has neither resolved its crisis on the Western border nor has it eased the pressure on the fight-terror front. There is a natural alignment between the two countries and a friendly Afghanistan will automatically lead to India being neutralised in due course. A secure and self-reliant Afghanistan will be a boost to Pakistan’s security and increase its policy permutations and combinations regarding its Eastern neighbour.

The coming days bring challenges that are going to be more profound than anything faced in the past as Pakistan and Afghanistan struggle to put their respective house in order. The line between low-intensity conflict and utter chaos is becoming increasingly thin. A divorce from the past, building on the numerous commonalities and the initiation of a joint and consultative approach could help the two countries in successfully addressing the growing threat perception in the region from multiple sources while continued and counterproductive antagonism would further compound the crisis.

Disparity in perceptions aside, there is much hope that came out of the engagements in Afghanistan. The need is to be sensitive to the genuine concerns of the Afghan people and try to build on a platform of mutual trust and understanding. There are no other options for Pakistan and Afghanistan alike.

Raoof Hasan

The writer is a political analyst and the Executive Director of the Regional Peace Institute. He can be reached at: [email protected]; Twitter: @RaoofHasan.



4 Comments

  1. bilal said:

    Afghan refugees who are living in Pakistan for decades, are now part of the Pakistani society. Time and again we have seen that, attacks in Pakistan were done by our home grown terrorists not by the refugees. It is such racist for us Pakistanis to demand them to go back home? Most of us are also immigrant at some time of history. It is time to give Afghani refugees nationality of Pakistan and provide them with full opportunity to live a respectable life like rest of the Pakistanis including, free education for their children. Stop racism against our Afghan brothers.

  2. Mira Rai said:

    Not only Pakistan needs a serious rethink. There are a lot of other countries that need to do rethink almost In every spheres, including education, cheap college essays, some organization changes, new departments, etc.

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