Pakistan-Afghan Relations: What Must Islamabad Do

In its attempt to often convert external pressures into positive openings the government has effectively dealt with what could have been a ‘two-front’ night-mare scenario confronting Pakistan. The internal political instability notwithstanding, the government’s sustained engagement with India and Afghanistan has eased pressure on Pakistan’s eastern and western borders. With especially Afghanistan there is tremendous potential for improving relations. Solid foundations for developing a ‘robust relationship’ with a country with which Pakistan shares a 2200 km long porous border can now be laid; ones those would be not be susceptible to changing politics in the two countries. Other countries of the region are already doing so. While indeed it takes ‘two to tango’ the primary onus for laying foundational structures for a lasting mutually beneficial ‘special relationship’ between the two States of Pakistan and Afghanistan, is on Pakistan.  

Afghanistan’s transitional turbulence notwithstanding, Kabul is ready for radically enhanced links with Pakistan. Significantly within Karzai and Northern Alliance dominated Afghan cabinet, for Pakistan there is now receptivity and openness. Islamabad’s policy shift, Afghan pragmatism and Washington’s Kabul-Islamabad reconciliation agenda have combined with the compulsions of geography, to render the past bitterness unsustainable. Personal interaction and candid exchanges between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Jamali and the Afghan President and his Northern Alliance ministers have been helpful. Yet ultimately it is Kabul-Islamabad cooperation in trade and anti-terrorism that has helped the most in countering suspicion between the Northern Alliance and a general-led Pakistani government.  

Jamali’s trip particularly generated goodwill. What clicked was the Prime Ministers humility, his emphasis on what good could be achieved through bilateral cooperation and his suggestion of not becoming prisoners of the past and to jointly work on the path of moderation.  

Cooperation in the trade and anti-terrorism alone will however yield limited results. Cooperation, via Washington in anti-terrorism is perhaps more about damage limitation. Anti-terrorism operations continue while trade barriers are being steadily removed. In the next six to eight weeks all band items will be removed from Pakistan Afghanistan transit list. Even a tremendous boast in trade alone, which has galloped to a whopping one billion from Pakistan during 2003, will not help to set the context and the structures for a robust relationship. For that political will, visible manifestation of cooperation and lasting institutional links are required.  

At present there are three formalized structures for bilateral interaction. The joint ministerial commission which meets three times a year to discuss economic issues. The bilateral border commission with Pakistan Afghanistan and United States as its member, to discuss border security issues and three bi-annual meetings between the Pakistan and Afghan Foreign Ministers.  

While in Kabul-Islamabad the political will exists it is not being sufficiently nurtured. Much of it, until recently was expended on countering the ill-will generated around the question of terrorism. Islamabad’s political will to now strategically, not tactically, mend fences with Kabul irrespective of who forms the government, must be accompanied by a relationship vision in which trade and economy acquire primacy without undermining Pakistan’s security interests.  

Significantly this vision has manifested itself in Islamabad’s decision to remove all trade barriers to transit trade wrongly erected by Pakistan in the eighties. Yet Islamabad has failed to match action with words on other crucial building blocks required for a robust relationship. Following are some interesting examples:  

– In June 2002 Islamabad announced that it would provide four high schools on turn-key basis to Afghanistan. In addition it would financed the running of these schools for the first two years. Upon being informed of Islamabad decision the Afghan defense minister Marshal Fahim suggested to the Pakistan’s Ambassador that the first school may be constructed in Panjsheer which would generate goodwill for Pakistan in an area otherwise bitter about Pakistan’s past policies. The Ambassador agreed and an enthusiastic Fahim had the announcement made on Kabul Television the same evening. All the euphoria not withstanding, almost two years down the road not even the first brick for this school have made. In Islamabad the endless Saga of receiving and rejecting tenders for these school building have applied breaks to a project which undoubtedly would have generated much needed political goodwill for Pakistan.  

– At an earlier occasion over a year ago Pakistani announced support to Afghanistan in the agriculture sector. Form equipment best quality of seeds, free threshers and training was promised. No actions have matched these offers.  

– Pakistan has promised construction of the 22 million $ Jalalabad to Torkhum road. Yet hardly any work has begun.  

The absence of follow-up where good initiatives have been made or the absence of initiatives itself reflects systemic problem in the functioning of Pakistan’s institutions. The inertia generated through the Mal-functioning of state institutions also prevents progress on issues directly affecting Pakistan. For example the Pakistan embassy compound which was completely gutted in rain sect after the 1990 for attack on the embassy has still not been prepared. In 2002 Pakistan’s architect Nayyar Ali Dada prepared an estimate for repairing and renovating the embassy. No follow up action has yet been taken. Meanwhile the Chinese have built a beautiful and huge embassy from scratch in Kabul within a record period of seven months.  

What are then some of the actions that would be mutually acceptable and beneficial for strengthening Pakistan-Afghan relations:  

– In the education sector institutional linkages would be important. For example affiliation between the Universities of Kandhar and Quetta and between Kabul and Peshawar. Pakistan should create an academic block in Kabul and Jalalabad Universities. Hospitals should be constructed in Herat and equipment could be provided in other main Afghan Hospitals.  

– Pakistan can provide electricity to Afghan villages bordering Pakistan either along Torkhum or Chaman. Iran and Uzbekistan have already provided electricity to Afghan villages that border the two.  

– Adoption of ongoing training institutions. For example the Gul Agha Information technology center in Kandhar where around 800 kids are learning computers. Pakistan should provide all the required equipment and human resource for this institute. In a much appreciated move made by the Prime Minister Jamali during his January visit to Kabul he announced doubling of scholarships currently provided to Afghan students in Pakistani professional institutions.  

– Bus service between Kandhar-Quetta and Jalalabad-Peshawar should be started.

– Given Pakistan’s experience in successfully running public administration Institutes in Peshawar Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan can setup an institute for public administration in Kabul.  

– The Nawa Pass – Arundu Road, which would connect Chitral with Peshawar through, the year round through Afghanistan should be constructed. The Afghan government has agreed to this idea but no move has been made by Pakistan by yet.  

– In the health area both the government and private sector can participate in establishing hospitals in Afghanistan. Especially in Kabul where there is an acute shortage of medical facilities. Enterprising the Pakistani doctor many of whom now have ample experience in running private hospitals, can setup well equip hospitals in Kabul. There is also a shortage of paramedics and the government can provide training to Afghan paramedics in Afghanistan.  

– Pakistan has already made a commitment to provide training to the Afghan police, custom officers, diplomats and teachers. Two groups of Afghan diplomats have already been trained.  

Iraq, Iran and Turkey have invested, as they should, in visible and concrete items. India will be providing 25 millions $ for the construction of an Afghan parliament building. A 70 million dollar road between Kabul and Kandhar will be built by India. Meanwhile of the hundred million dollars committed as aid to Afghanistan by Pakistan over a five year period, ten million dollars have already been disburse in cash wheat, fertilizer and sugar.  

The Afghan want access to both Char Bahar and Gwadar ports. The Afghans see themselves as the pivotal point in the intricate trading mails that connects South central and South West Asia extended to South East Asia and Europe.  

Afghans are keenly awaiting completion of Pakistan’s Gwador port. This port would be connected to Kabul via the Chaman Kandhar road. The feasibility study for 107 Km road will be completed by May 2004. Senior Afghan officials referred to the Gwadar port as the port of peace, bringing through greater trade links the people of the entire region closer. The Iranian Chahbahar port will be linked to Afghanistan through the Zaranj-Farah road.Iran is already constructing a railway line from Chahbahar to Nimroz.  

Afghanistan promises to be at the heart of what will define the health of our region, trade and economy, in a stable political context. It is Pakistan’s need to be connected to that heart in healthy and sustainable manner. The ball is now in Pakistan’s court to proactively broaden the scope of its relations with Afghanistan.