Among many daunting issues and challenges Prime Minister Imran Khan has inherited from the PML-N government on internal and external fronts, the one related to handling Afghanistan crisis is perhaps the most critical. In his very first telephonic conversation with US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, the issue of terrorism and fighting militancy in Afghanistan became a hot topic and the two states came up with different official statements on the conversation. Nevertheless, the stand taken by Pakistan’s new government was commendable and deserves applaud.
The recent visit of the US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, and General Dunford to Pakistan although was a goodwill gesture, yet behind the doors, the agenda was to discuss Afghanistan issue with the new government. The United States is in dire need to achieve the policy goals in Afghanistan as has been pointed out in Donald Trump’s new Afghan policy and, for that purpose, the role of Pakistan is crucial and fundamental.
Nonetheless, Pakistan has its own stakes and interests in Afghanistan, which may not necessarily coincide in every aspect with those of the United States there. It is the immediate neighbour of Afghanistan and has much influence and stakes there. So, it will – and indubitably it should – prioritize its own interests over those of others in Afghanistan.
The new government in Pakistan has, so far, come up with a clear approach on dealing with other partners on reciprocal, equality basis as is clear from the welcome accorded to the US Secretary of State and Chinese Foreign Minister when they landed at the airport. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, visited Pakistan soon after Pompeo’s visit, to discuss bilateral issues and, of course, Afghanistan, as well as the demands put forth by the United States. China and Pakistan are on the same page regarding the Afghan issue while the United States is bent on giving a larger role to India in that country to counter the alliance of Pakistan and China.
Now coming towards the bilateral issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan which should be a top priority in “Naya Pakistan”. The first and foremost challenge is that Pakistan should see Afghanistan crisis through its own lens and perspective, regardless of demands of the United States because the latter will have to leave this arena sooner or later, but Pakistan and Afghanistan have to live with each other forever.
Second, the issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is a consistent bone of contention between the two countries. In this regard, Naya Pakistan should look after this issue in a brotherly manner and should not take it merely as a strategic or security issue. Afghan refugees must be repatriated but in a dignified and honourable way so that this asset of brotherly treatment and relationships built with Pakistani families during the last four decades does not become a liability after their repatriation.
Third, the issue of bilateral and transit route should get an immediate attention of Naya Pakistan’s authorities. The bilateral trade is decreasing day by day but, conversely, smuggling and illegal trade are thriving despite a number of steps for its control in one way or another. Pakistan should now ease trade rules for Afghanistan and must reassure that both countries achieve the target of boosting annual trade between them to the tune of 5 billion US dollars.
Fourth, improvement in bilateral relations through increased people-to-people contacts and cultural exchanges in various fields of life is another key challenge for the new government. As have been done by the previous government, Imran Khan’s government should increase scholarship opportunities for Afghan students, exchange programs for media professionals, training of Afghan security and defence forces at Pakistan’s training institutions, increased interaction between the businessmen of the two countries and the creation of a long-lasting mechanism for continuation of such steps.
Fifth, the trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been a persistent problem which has, time and again, stifled the fostering of cordiality in ties between the two countries. Both states should overcome this key issue by coming closer to each other in various fields of life, and understanding of basic issues with the provision of long-lasting solutions to the issues by handling it with a deep insight and trust in each other.
Sixth, the issue of militancy and terrorism in Afghanistan is another deep concern and threat for both the states. Daesh has gained ground in different areas of Afghanistan and has been reportedly involved in many attacks on Afghan citizens and Afghan forces. Daesh is a mutual enemy of both the countries and it should be dealt with mutual understanding and cooperation. Many other groups are also out to create anarchy, instability and turmoil in various areas of Afghanistan and that has been a major cause of many problems for Pakistan as well. So, the two countries should now develop a joint strategy to deal with these forces.
Last but not least, bringing political stability in Afghanistan is another big challenge. For the said purpose, negotiated political settlement with the Taliban is a viable and practicable option. Although the international community has made efforts in this direction – through Istanbul Process, Norway Conference, Murree Peace Talks, Russian Initiative, Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), The Kabul Process and many informal meetings with the Taliban in China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Central Asian Republics and Turkey – the Taliban leadership is still to be persuaded for negotiations. Now, it is time for the Afghan government to take lead and talk with the Taliban directly, involving Pakistan as a facilitator and United States as a guarantor in order to end this saga for the sake of Afghan people. Pakistan has always offered its services for the said purpose and now Imran Khan should also do the same and offer the Afghan government all its services. Political settlement with the Taliban will definitely help in eradicating the menace of militancy and terrorism, and can also curtail the presence of foreign militants on the Afghan land. The parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are fast approaching and Pakistan should extend its support in holding free and fair polls.
To sum up, Naya Pakistan needs to come up with a new approach so as to bring the two countries closer to each other. Pakistan should take into confidence all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan and create harmonious relations among them. The needs and interests of each other should be understood and take steps correspondingly to help each other in solving their problems. Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot live without each other’s cooperation. Their destiny is shared in many ways. The international community will be having different interests and needs, and for achieving those, different tactics and pressures will be applied on Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the basic approach of both the countries should be the achievement of long-lasting stability, and development on their lands through mutual cooperation.