Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Envisioning a Better Future in Pak-Afghan Relations

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Envisioning a Better Future  in Pak-Afghan Relations

The recent visit of President Karzai and his accompanying delegation to Pakistan was ground-breaking in many respects. Nobody can expect the troubled relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan with a long history of mutual distrust to improve overnight given this multitude of deep-seated problems that involve almost the full spectrum of bilateral issues between the two countries. However, in international relations and as history has shown, no matter how complicated the problems between the two countries may be, there is always time and room for rapprochement and sorting out the mutual problems.

History is replete with examples. The visit by our Afghan delegation to Pakistan headed by the country's President, although fell short of expectations of some, brought back with itself the Islamabad Declaration. The declaration sets the groundwork for a comprehensive framework of cooperation between the two countries and lets the two sides take the practical first steps towards breaking the centuries-old ice that has weighed down the bilateral relations. The qualitative improvement in the bilateral relations that the two countries seek through implementing this declaration would cover such areas as connectivity and infrastructure development, starting cooperation in areas of energy, mines and minerals as well expanding the cultural ties and people-to-people contacts. For example, Pakistan will provide Afghan youth with 2000 fully-funded scholarships to study medicine and engineering in Pakistani universities.

You can be certain that many within Afghanistan would continue to dismiss and reject the importance of this declaration, as they already are, invoking this cliché argument that relations between the two countries will never improve because Pakistan is not honest and it has its own military-security agendas in Afghanistan and so on and so forth. Such an outlook towards Pakistan and downplaying the importance of Islamabad Declaration, in reality, stems from a kind of old mindset that is largely the legacy of the Taliban and pre-Taliban eras.

If one is going to view and see the future based solely on the past without giving due consideration to the evolving present situation, then this kind of strictly linear thinking would result in excluding these evolving dimensions of the situation that are taking place at present. This general rule is true in almost every situation that involves humans and countries including the Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. There are many factors and evolving dimensions to this bilateral relationship taking place right now that can guarantee that the tomorrow of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations will not necessarily look like its past.

I acknowledge that resolving the full spectrum of bilateral problems including some very large ones such as the border question will take many years if not decades to happen; however, over the short and medium term there is a lot of space for improving this troubled relationship. What it takes of course is a degree of sound judgment and good will on the part of policy-makers in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and their determination not to allow vested interests to derail the convergence process.

There is tremendous potential in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations that should be harnessed. Upon realization of this objective and a greater convergence of both countries in both political and economic spheres, both the countries and nations can benefit immensely. Terrorism and Taliban militancy and the imperative of joint fight against them constitute only one dimension of this under-utilized and under-developed relationship. Let us take a look at one of the most important factors and evolving dimensions to the Afghanistan-Pakistan relations that is quietly driving this process of convergence in both political and economic spheres. The recent outreach between Islamabad and Kabul is, to an extent, the result of this factor.

The factor that is driving the process of mutual rapprochement forward in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations is the realization on the part of both the government in Kabul headed by president Karzai and the civilian administration in Islamabad that it is more beneficial for both to cooperate rather than to stay aloof of one another. What is further reinforcing this new perception especially in Pakistan is that the all-powerful Pakistani military, which more or less controls the Pakistan's Afghanistan policy, also has reached the conclusion that staying aloof of government in Kabul has the effect of further complicating the Pakistani geo-political problems and challenges. Nowadays, in Pakistan's military circles, more than ever before, the Generals agree that the American and NATO's military presence here on Afghan soil is having gravely negative effects for Pakistan.

Many Pakistani officials including Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, have time and again pointed out to the strategic threat that is directed towards Pakistan as a result of American and NATO war in Afghanistan. On closer investigation, however, the Pakistani authorities' fears and apprehensions do indeed seem genuine given the wider geo-political and geo-strategic objectives of the U.S. and NATO in the broader region towards China, Iran and of course Pakistan. The arrest of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor in Lahore in January, was the pinnacle of the series of events that lifted the curtain for Pakistan to get a glimpse of what is actually taking place inside Pakistan by the U.S. supposedly under the rubric of fighting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

It came out that what Raymond Davis was doing inside Pakistan along with a network of hundreds of other western spies was, shockingly enough, the opposite of fighting terrorism.What has painfully dawned upon people in power in Islamabad and Rawalpindi is that their country is becoming increasingly more of a target than an ally. This event and the realization on the part of Pakistan, over the past few years, that the west can no longer be a reliable partner in the long-term has had the net effect of bringing about a sea change in Pakistan's foreign policy.

What we are witnessing is Pakistan scrambling to revive and improve ties with other countries in the region, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries chiefly Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has already started to actively pursue diversifying his international partners and move away from its traditional reliance on China and the U.S. as the two main allies. Pakistan has already applied for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its application is being discussed right now in the SCO annual summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can be thought as the eastern equivalent of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Therefore, Pakistan and both its civilian and military centers of power are trying to gradually shed the old, cold-war era mentality that prevented Pakistan from pursuing a dynamic foreign policy for almost twenty years. This tectonic shift in foreign policy is a large driver behind the recent Pakistani outreach to the government of President Karzai in Kabul. We hope that the policy-makers in Kabul also can seize the opportunity and pursue a constructive foreign policy leaving open options for Afghanistan.

The author is the permanent writer of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at outlook afghanistan@gmail.com

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