Pak-Afghan Relations, A Tale of Mistrust and Lost Opportunities

Pak-Afghan Relations

Pak-Afghan relations have been marred by mutual mistrust, acrimony and recurrent blame game. Under the disruptive thumb of India, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has recently threatened to completely block Pakistan’s trade access to Central Asia, if Islamabad does not formally permit Kabul to import Indian goods via the Wagah border. Such threats will further deteriorate the already fragile relationship between both the countries. Pakistan and Afghanistan have already lost a significant number of convergent socioeconomic and security interests on account of frequently exchanging of banalities on trivial issues and baseless mudslinging against each other. <div>

Pakistan and Afghanistan share common economic interests and are facing the same security challenges in the region. Islamabad and Kabul badly need each other’s uninterrupted land access to continuing regional trade and the required security cooperation to permanently flush out hardcore terrorist and militant groups. Afghanistan requires the facilities of Pakistani universities and hospitals for its students and patients. Such win-win cooperation will immensely help Pakistani educational institutions and hospitals to set up their branches in Afghanistan, thus reaping substantial revenues.

However, there exists a range of ever-increasing divergences and obstructive irritants which need urgent and meticulous attention to turn the present topsy-turvy bilateral relations into friendly, sustainable and fruitful.

Despite the existence of such marvellous opportunities, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been at loggerheads and do not see eye to eye on the security front as well. If both the countries futilely continue to remain at cross purposes, this will, presumably, bestow the Taliban and Daesh with a sinew to continue recruiting more fighters for carrying out their nefarious terrorist and militant missions.

Pak-Afghan Economic Ties

The present bilateral trade volume between the two countries stands at approximately $2.5 billion. Both the countries, time and again, have agreed to increase the trade level to $5 billion by 2017. Presently, Pakistan is the largest export destination, accounting for some 32.2 percent of all Afghan exports. The PML-N leadership is seriously pondering over establishing an exporting bank in Afghanistan and initiating a currency swap deal with Afghanistan.

Moreover, the 1965 Afghan Transit Trade Agreement which was redesigned in 2010 as the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) facilitates all Afghan exports to India via Wagah border in Pakistan, and to the world through the Karachi and Gwadar seaports. In return, Afghanistan allows Pakistani trucks to transport products to all regions of Afghanistan and to Central Asia via the Wakhan Corridor. To expand the APTTA, negotiations on Pakistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan Trilateral Transit Trade Agreement (PATTTTA) have recently hit a snag due to Afghanistan being at the beck and call of India, the sworn enemy of Pakistan.

Over and above, under the 2003 technical support programme, Pakistan has extended infrastructure development projects by constructing roads and hospitals. Some of these projects have been successfully completed while the others are in the process of completion. Soon, Pakistan Railways will begin to carry 400 containers per week to transit to Afghanistan.

To make Afghan trade easier through the APTTA, Pakistan has fulfilled a long-standing Afghan demand of reducing electronic scanning of incoming Afghan transit cargo from 100 percent to just 20 percent, thereby drastically reducing the port clearance time.

Pak-Afghan Educational Ties

On the education front, a large number of Afghan students are enrolled in Pakistani universities. More than 30,000 Afghan nationals have so far graduated from Pakistani institutions. They are now playing an active role in the reconstruction and socioeconomic development of the war-ravaged country.

Approximately 4,000 Afghan students are enrolled in different educational intuitions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Moreover, the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) also provides adequate seats and scholarships to talented Afghan students.

It would be a win-win situation if Pakistani universities establish branches in Afghanistan. Such initiatives will not only assist Pakistani universities in earning good reputation and resources, but also in improving Afghan students and the education sector.

Irritants in Bilateral Relations

The major stumbling block to amicable Pak-Afghan relations is perennial cross-border terrorism. Both Kabul and Islamabad blame each other of clandestinely supporting the Afghan Taliban and the fugitive leaders of the hibernating TTP, respectively. As a result, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP have continued to capitalise on the existing environment of mistrust by orchestrating deadly terrorist attacks on both sides of the porous Durand Line.

Since bilateral relations between the two neighbouring states are plagued with deep mistrust, each side, therefore, resorts to employing surreptitious tactics to harm the other. In the same way, hard-core Pakistani terrorists, militants and insurgents are warmly welcomed by Afghan security agencies to deliberately exploit them in stirring up disruptive chaos in Pakistan.

Due to the ongoing military offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a large number of hardened Pakistani militants and terrorists have found sanctuaries in the north-western Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Fugitive TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah is also believed to be hiding in Afghanistan under the nose of Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). By such a policy of harbouring terrorists, Afghanistan will hoist on its own petard because the TTP and the Afghan Taliban support each other’s ideological narratives and covertly afford shelters to one another when in trouble.

Though Operation Zarb-e-Azb has successfully dismantled the organisational structures of the TTP and its splinter outfits from Fata, some Afghan terrorist groups still have hotbeds in northwestern Balochistan and terror-infested tribal areas. From these unsafe areas, they plan lethal attacks on the feeble Afghan government, ill-organized security forces and underperforming institutions. Therefore, whenever a terrorist attack takes place in Afghanistan, Kabul immediately points its finger at Islamabad, which ultimately results in further deterioration of bilateral relations. Such covert support to terrorist outfits has made the elimination of regional terrorism a wild goose chase.

The persistent impasse over the timely repatriation of 1.5 million registered and a large number of non-registered Afghan refugees has been a constant irritant in fluctuating Pak-Afghan ties. Pakistan has recently decided to repatriate them to war-torn Afghanistan at all costs. Pakistani security agencies believe that a number of these refugees have been involved in terrorist attacks and other criminal activities inside Pakistan.

To the dismay of these homeless people, Afghanistan’s economy is in a state of disarray and the country cannot afford even makeshift facilities for such a large number of refugees. The unity government of Afghanistan is rather apprehensive that these unskilled and uneducated refugees will be a mounting economic burden, thus compelling the government to spend a large chunk of foreign funds on them.

Most of these refugees are mired in poverty and joblessness and such a situation will further exacerbate the menace of terrorism in Afghanistan. Both IS-Khorasan and the Afghan Taliban have already prepared themselves to attract a raft of jobless and disgruntled Afghan refugees and recruit them for a slew of terrorist and militant attacks in the terror-infested Pak-Afghan areas. Ominously, as the Afghan security forces do not have a leg to stand on against terrorists, this will adversely impact the already deteriorating law and order situation in the country.

Even though Afghanistan has the international financial backing to rehabilitate these refugees, both Kabul and Islamabad need each other’s all-out assistance to pre-empt the imminent refugee crisis. A large number of Afghan refugees have married Pakistani nationals, have acquired Pakistani identity cards and have established thriving businesses and houses here. Therefore, the Pakistani government should exercise caution in dealing with the delicate matter of Afghan refugees. Any indifference and negligence in this regard will create threatening security issues for Pakistan in the foreseeable future.

It is imperative to mention here that Afghanistan has, of late, calibrated an ill-conceived geostrategic and geoeconomic policy against Pakistan under the tutelage of India. Now, it is an open secret that Afghan policymakers frequently rub their shoulders with Indian economic and strategic thinkers. But, the Afghan government is grossly mistaken about completely blocking Pakistan’s trade access to Central Asia via the economically important Wakhan Corridor; rescinding its long-lasting transit accord with Pakistan and consequently accessing India through the Chabahar Port.

Afghanistan should understand that such an obstructive and misguided step will not block Pakistan’s trade access to Central Asia. After completing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Islamabad will be able to use alternative and safer routes such as through China to export and import goods and energy resources to and from the region.

The projected Afghan trade route will enormously harm Kabul’s regional economic interests. This risky and long Afghan trade route to India via Iranian Chabahar Port will apparently make Indian exports to Afghanistan quite expensive, hence largely unaffordable to the ordinary Afghans. Moreover, this will negatively impact Afghan fruit exports to India because Indian consumers could possibly prefer less expensive and better quality local fruits to those of Afghanistan’s low quality and costly ones. Therefore, the ordinary Afghans will bear the brunt of their government’s policy of blocking Pakistan’s access to Central Asia.

Furthermore, Afghanistan will lose a large sum of transit fees which it collects from Pakistani trucks for using its road links to Central Asia. Such a non-cooperative behaviour by the Afghan leadership will bring about more roadblocks and bottlenecks for the early completion of TAPI gas pipeline. More importantly, Afghanistan is not only expected to acquire an adequate amount of gas from this trans-regional project, it will also gain substantial transit charges from Pakistan and India.

Another irritant in harmonious bilateral relations is the objectionable Indian role in Afghanistan. It goes without saying that a bevy of Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have been heavily involved in stoking low-level insurgency in Balochistan by allegedly providing arms and financing to insurgent groups. Apart from this, large caches of India-made sophisticated weapons have been recovered in militancy-hit Fata during search operations.

The Way Forward

So, it is abundantly clear that antagonistic and obstructive geoeconomic policies of Afghanistan to target Pakistan will badly hurt both the countries. The two countries are already reeling under the soaring poverty, rising unemployment, unabated terrorism and bubbling militancy. It is time for Kabul and Islamabad to bury the hatchet, extend the olive branch to each other and cooperate sincerely rather than pursuing elusive policies of proxy wars and futile containment of each other.

Arguably, economic progress and effective security of both the countries largely rely on each other’s socioeconomic and security conditions. Pakistan cannot access and capitalise on the burgeoning energy resources of Central Asia without Afghan support. On the other hand, Afghanistan also requires Pakistan’s transport and seaport infrastructures to connect itself with the world for export and import purposes. Also, they need each other to contain and stamp out simmering terrorism and militancy.

To increase bilateral trade, it is pertinent for both the countries to foster their connectivity by constructing rail and road links between Gwadar and Chaman, Peshawar and Kabul and Peshawar and Tokhram.

Equally important, banks, communications, travel and customs facilities should be arranged as early as possible for smooth flow of two-way trade. In this context, a liberal visa regime for businessmen, skilled workers, academia and social workers would also prove effective.

It is also important to block cross-border infiltration of terrorists and militants in order to get rid of them. In this regard, both Pakistan and Afghanistan should stamp out terrorist hotbeds on their soil and beef up security on both sides of the Durand Line. Besides, the ISI and the NDS should also cooperate and coordinate intelligence on terrorists and militants so that they can be easily hunted down.

Afghanistan needs to assure that Indian diplomatic missions on its soil are not be involved in fomenting terrorism and insurgency in Pakistan. Both the countries should also jointly work to root out the mushrooming drug trade because it is a big source of funding for terrorism.

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