The recent Afghan-Pakistan diplomatic activity has brought the relations between the two neighbouring countries into the spotlight once more. In spite of all the uncertainty and mistrust surrounding this relationship, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s latest high-profile visit to Islamabad provides a glimmer of hope. Although it seems a remote possibility, with genuine political will on both sides, a breakthrough may be in the offing. The visit came at a time when the newly-elected government of Nawaz Sharif had taken office in Islamabad with renewed pledges to restore peace in his country, which is inextricably linked to peace and stability in neighbouring Afghanistan. Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister for the third time, has a long-standing experience of dealing with Afghan politics. It is yet to be seen how far all this optimism can translate into bringing stability to the troubled region. However, the initiation of release of the members of Afghan Taliban from Pakistani prisons does seem to be a good omen and a major development. It is noteworthy that prisoners’ release has been a long-standing demand of the Afghan government, hoping that the step will support the peace process with Taliban insurgents.
Unlike in the past, Pakistani institutions now appear to be more ready to embrace a paradigm shift. The judiciary is more independent than ever. Media and civil society are increasingly vibrant. An elected government has completed its term — a rare occurrence in Pakistan. These developments may entail the opening of a new chapter in Pakistani politics whereby a civilian government will be able to exercise its powers with minimal intervention from the military leadership. The implications of the aforementioned for Afghan-Pakistan relations will be interesting to debate, noting that these relations have been characterised by suspicion, mistrust and antagonism in the past.
The Pakistani military establishment has continued to pursue its traditional policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan. This policy gained further momentum after the collapse of the Taliban regime in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11. This approach is, however, being increasingly questioned by Pakistani intelligentsia, the mainstream political parties and its outspoken media and vibrant civil society. Opposition by various circles to a persistent intervention in Afghanistan has been observed from time to time.
The patronage of militant groups outside Afghanistan has put Pakistan’s own security at risk, causing huge loss of life and shattering of the latter’s economy over the past decade. An increasing instability, militancy and lack of security across Pakistan have prompted the political leadership of the country to rethink its policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan. If true, the recent developments may as well indicate the beginning of a gradual shift occurring in Pakistan. This may eventually lead to the abandonment of intervention as an instrument of foreign policy. If this presumed evolution of Pakistani foreign policy is completed, the two neighbours will start to take a fresh look at each other as being strategic partners rather than antagonistic neighbours. Given the dynamics of Pakistan’s foreign policy, with its military playing a central role, one can only be cautiously optimistic about the future.
On the Afghanistan side, there is need for a more unified and integrated approach with regard to its relations with Pakistan. Managing Pakistani affairs has always been a challenge for Kabul partly because of the very complexity of the subject. A general lack of intellectual capital and think-tanks in Pakistani affairs, limited robust diplomacy and a continued sense of mistrust regarding Pakistan’s intentions are also some of the constraints for a major breakthrough in bilateral relations.
Over the past decade, India has invested tremendously in Afghanistan’s rebuilding efforts. Setting aside India’s generous support to post-Taliban Afghanistan, the two countries are considered to be time-honoured friends. Afghanistan’s cordial relations with India are often thought of as being one of the major hurdles in confidence-building measures between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, Afghanistan’s stance is very clear on this. It asserts that as an independent country, it has every right to establish relations with countries in the region and beyond based on its national interests. However, the Pakistani establishment perceives this as being too close to its arch-rival India at the cost of ignoring its next door neighbour. To address Pakistan’s concerns, the Afghanistan government has repeatedly conveyed its message, loud and clear, that it will not allow any country to use its soil for waging proxy wars. Recognising Pakistan’s vital role in facilitating peace talks with the insurgents, the Afghan political leadership now seems to be increasingly focused on putting its policy on Pakistan on track while being mindful of its appropriate geo-political context. Having said that, one must admit that the ball is in Pakistan’s court now.
On the economic front, Pakistan has tremendously benefited during Karzai’s rule. Its annual trade with Afghanistan has exceeded $2 billion (Dh7.35 billion) and is expected to reach $5 billion by 2015. Afghanistan offers economically feasible, fast and efficient trade route for Pakistan to Central Asian countries. The energy crisis in Pakistani makes it imperative for Islamabad to improve its relation with Afghanistan and have the issue at the centre of its supposedly renewed approach to Kabul, wherein the latter can offer access to energy markets owing to its huge hydropower potential as well as serving as a transit route for power transmission from Central Asian countries.
The people in both countries are eager to see the start of a new chapter in bilateral ties between the two neighbours to reap mutual benefits of peace, stability and economic growth. It is up to the leadership in both Kabul and Islamabad now to rapidly seize this historical opportunity.
Ajmal Shams is President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party better known as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party and is based in Kabul, Afghanistan.