Pak-Afghan relations: Hanging by a thread
Why are all our tributaries
Of love in tumult
Our rivers of life
In revolt?” — Ejaz Rahim
I WAS recently in Afghanistan to attend the academic forum meeting in connection with the sixth gathering of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference for Afghanistan. It gave me an opportunity for discussion with the Afghan leadership, officials from the Pakistani mission in Kabul, diplomats from different countries, and an enriching interaction with the youth under the young Afghan leaders programme run by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, Afghanistan.
Many of us had high hopes of a paradigm shift in Afghan-Pakistan relations when President Ashraf Ghani soon after taking office, in a break with the past, visited GHQ on his maiden visit to Pakistan. His gesture conveyed two clear messages; firstly, that he understood the Pakistan military’s paramountcy in the oversight of its country’s foreign policy with Afghanistan, and secondly, he depended on the Pakistan military to deliver the ‘Quetta Shura’ so that a lasting reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban could be achieved.
To this end, an MoU was also signed between Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agencies — the ISI and the National Directorate of Security (NDS) respectively — which aimed at eradicating terrorist safe havens, despite strong misgivings amongst components of Afghanistan’s national unity government.
Efforts required to revive Pak-Afghan relations are missing and urgently needed
Matters were proceeding smoothly when the rapidly developing friendly relations between the two nations were grievously impacted by a series of explosions that rocked the Afghan capital on Aug 7. About 50 Afghans were killed and more than 300 innocent citizens injured. Senior Afghan officials pointed the finger at Pakistan, specifically accusing the Haqqani network for these atrocities. The officials claimed their allegations were based on electronic intercepts and they accused Pakistan of perfidy and dishonesty in its intentions towards Afghanistan.
Two events then followed in quick succession. First, both the Afghan parliament and civil society denounced the MoU that had been signed between the intelligence agencies; second, the NDS criticised the ISI as being less than honest for hiding the fact that the emir of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, had died more than two years ago.
After this, the perceptions of Afghans towards Pakistan became increasingly negative. While interacting with young Afghans in Kabul, I asked if anyone amongst them could summarise in a phrase their attitude towards Pakistan today. A youth studying in Afghanistan University responded by saying, “We hate you in the same manner as the Palestinians hate the Israelis!” It was a sobering exchange indeed.
The fear of violence at the hands of intelligence agents and civilians (there have been instances of intimidation) has forced the Pakistan ambassador to pull his staff into the chancery; I also found that while the rest of the diplomatic missions attended formal gatherings, Pakistani representation was usually absent. This clearly showed that the improvement in Pak-Afghan relations that had begun with so much hope now lies shattered.
What is painful to note is that the effort required to revive relations is also missing; surely now is the time to reach out with a host of visiting delegations from Pakistan to assuage Afghan grievances. This is the accepted cultural norm in the region, and if we don’t know that, then there is a need to take a crash course in Pakhtun social norms to fill the gap if we want to remain relevant.
From my discussions, it became evident that not only is there a huge trust deficit between our two nations at the moment, but that the top Afghan leadership feels betrayed and aggrieved. This is especially so given the perception that the huge truck explosion in Kabul on Aug 7 was meant for the leaders of the national unity government. In short, the perceptions in Kabul towards Pakistan are far from positive.
At another level, there is criticism of the national unity government for failing to address the problems that beset their people. Also of concern is the fact that its leadership is widely diffused within the coalition which appears as a vehicle that is out of sync. Kabul residents quip they have a government with seven presidents — Dr Ghani, Dr Abdullah, two deputies of Dr Ghani, two deputies of Dr Abdullah and Mr Hamid Karzai. The former president continues to enjoy official resources and protection afforded by the government. Obviously, this is a heavy burden on the meagre resources of the Afghan state that is barely able to generate $874 million from taxes and duties, while the cost of maintaining the Afghan National Security Forces alone is $4.3 billion.
Despite the passage of nine months, no defence minister has yet been appointed and corruption levels remain high. People in Kabul speak of a lack of willingness to tackle this menace that is harming Afghan nation-building. It is also important to remember that improved security is vital for Afghanistan to develop into an effective state.
So how does one put Pakistan’s Afghan policy back on the rails? We must understand that Afghanistan is a proud, sovereign nation and cannot be considered a client state: it obviously causes anger when Pakistani security managers respond to Afghan concerns by claiming that their attention was diverted by the Saudi-Yemen conflict.
The most effective step will be to undertake a strategic dialogue with Afghanistan with progress strictly monitored rather than being left on paper alone. Afghanistan needs help and sympathy; in return Pakistan will gain a friend and also enhance its own security. The international community can help create a firefighting protocol that should come into play the moment any provocation takes place.
It is the region’s bad luck that it abounds in false flag operations that are likely to increase in the days to come, since there are too many spoilers who are taking part in this version of the Great Game.
The writer is the convener of the Pakistan Policy Group in the Post-2014 Afghanistan project supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2015