Pakistan-Afghanistan: Engagement Only Way Forward

Pakistan Prime Minster Shaukat Aziz’s January 4 trip to Kabul ended in blunt words by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. They disagreed on Pakistan’s fencing plan and a common position on the jirga is still to be worked out. These seemingly intractable issues notwithstanding, there was progress on the construction of a rail link from Chaman to Spin Boldak, on the dualisation of the Jalababad-Torkham Highway linking the two countries. Supply of electricity from Tajikistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan is being planned.

Increased media interaction is already underway. Pakistan’s media delegation was recently in Afghanistan to look into way of promoting people to people understanding. Pakistan has announced increase in development funds for the rehabilitation of Afghanistan from $250 to 300 million, which would be spent on the reconstruction of schools and hospitals.

The Afghan President is a bright, bold and pragmatic man. In the high-stake power game he deftly adjusts to changing realities. At times compelled by power compulsions he has too willingly altered positions; and as subsequent developments would tell, unwisely. For example the retraction of his earliest position that as President he would politically engage with the talibaan. Washington’s prompt and public displeasure triggered his retraction. The bright and articulate Karzai has since been ably articulating a progressive Islamic and humane vision for his war-torn country. However alongside his vision Karzai’s has also regularly articulated the hurdles he believes Pakistan has created in way of Afghan progress.

In Pakistan, Musharraf has consistently engaged with Karzai’s complaints. Mindful of the lingering distrust in Kabul of Islamabad’s past policies, the Pakistani president personally sought a paradigm shift in Islamabad’s Afghan policy. Suspicions from the past and evenfrom the present ran too deep. It was impossible without mutual trust that the troubled relationship between the two neighbors, bound by history, culture, trade and security, could be brought back on track. Numerous one-on-one Musharraf-Karzai meetings were held as the two visited Kabul and Islamabad. Musharraf directed all relevant institutions including the security agencies to track at all levels responded to incessant complaints by Karzai plus sections of the international community with specific measures. A policy which the former Prime Minister was only partially able to alter, general Musharraf with his control over the security agencies was better placed to change. Along with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz Musharraf led policy change on the political/security front and on the trade and commercial front.

Concrete steps have included candid dialogue between Pakistani and Afghan politicians, security officials and bureaucrats, sharing intelligence information, meeting of intelligence officials, regular meetings of the Tripartite Border Commissions, devising of ways, even if imperfect, including the Waziristan deal to contain the tribal situation and its spillover into Afghanistan.

The talibaan issue is also a political problem, as Karzai fully understands, so expecting a solution from Islamabad alone is unrealistic. There is remorse among those who were the earlier architects of Afghanistan’s political landscape for excluding the talibaan in the earlier configuration. And in her December 4 2006 article Lyse Doucett , the BBC analyst on Afghanistan writes that, "Lakhdar Brahimi worries that he and others were wrong not to bring the Taleban into the political process as early as 2002." In fact for a more comprehensive and perceptive view of current Afghanistan the link carries an article by Lyse Doucet’s article Afghanistan a Job Half Done, which deserves a read.

Meanwhile, the alienated and now insurgent talibaan also get some support from influential MMA individuals in the NWFP and Baluchistan governments and even some individuals from the ranks in security agencies must still continue. In his characteristic style general Musharraf event went to the extent of accepting that some elements from the past may still be instrumental in providing support to some talibaan groups. He was keen to look into complaints about talibaan leadership presence in Pakistan personally made by Karzai. Musharraf has had his own reasons to contain and disarm groups spreading violence and fanaticism. He fully understands the linkage between these groups and the problems at home of hate, violence and insecurity.

Pakistan’s goodwill gestures have included the logistical support provided by the government of Pakistan during the recent presidential election in Afghanistan to the hundreds of thousands of voters among the Afghan refuges who were voting for Karzai. The aggressive push on trade has led to the manifold increase in trade which is now t around 1.2 billion dollars.

But for all of Pakistan’s confidence building moves Pakistan-Afghan tensions have spiraled. There has been name calling, constant complaining and open accusations. President Karzai is a man under pressure. Almost unabated his accusations have continued ; that Pakistan has given shelter to Osama Bin Ladin, that Pakistan government is not doing enough to stop the talibaan, that Pakistan’swants to ‘enslave’ Afghanistan.

In private meetings with senior Pakistani ministers the Afghan president has complained that Pakistan is still pursuing its old policy of controlling Afghanistan to acquire "strategic depth" vis a vis India.

As Afghanistan’s security situation deteriorates, the economic conditions does not improve, the political chaos continues and the talibaan insurgency gains unprecedented momentum, the inadequacy of NATO forces becomes evident, the failure to control the border movements continues unchecked, Kabul’s failure to administer Afghanistan is obvious, the paucity of development and the absence of good governance and the inadequacy of international support, translate into a huge pressure on Karzai.

The talibaan warn of bloodier battles ahead and the world listens to them attentively, if fearfully. NATO forces look for larger number of troops to battle them. Others including the British believe some political arrangements are also required. Musharraf has been the most vocal in warning of the talibaan increasingly gaining popular support. He knows the growing appeal as it attracts an increasing number of towns in Pakistan’s NWFP province’s settled areas. In the tribal areas where the talibaan support has not evaporated Pakistan tries various approaches to neutralize them, to win them over or to even contain them.

Meanwhile, as a man under tremendous pressure Karazai falters. He does what is now almost second nature to him; repeated outbursts against Pakistan- against its support for the talibaan and for destabilizing Afghanistan. Karzai’s complaints combine with US and NATO criticism have forced Pakistan to demand that Afghanistan take back its still over 2 million refuges. Pakistan is finding to manage this extremely large refugee population that move sin thousands across the Pakistan-Afghan border on a daily basis. Islamabad has asked the UN to make arrangements for their repatriation. In Kabul the Pakistan Prime Minister categorically stated that Kabul and Islamabad have agreed to work on resettling three million Afghan refugees back in Afghanistan and removing the sanctuary that refugee camps provide to insurgents. He explained that "Refugee camps on our side of the border sometimes are safe havens for elements who are from Afghanistan and take safe haven there after conducting activities,"

The other step taken by Pakistan is the partial fencing of the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Pakistan has announced placing of additional paratroops along the borders, mining and fencing of the border selectively to attempt to prevent unchecked border crossings. Only selective sections of the 2430 kilometer long border can be fenced and mined. Such a measure will have to be carefully implemented to avoid mining of areas that could create civilian causalities or undermine or endanger normal movement of people and goods. However Karzai’s outbursts against mining betray lack of clear thinking. Hamid Karzai said the plan announced by Islamabad this week would do nothing to stop terrorism. He calls for removal of sanctuaries of terrorists. He condemned the plan as one that would "merely divide families already split by the British-drawn frontier" is mere populism. Afghanistan and Pakistan are two different countries and both reserve the right to protect borders as they deem fit, however without hindering normal movement. There is repeated assurance from Islamabad that, when the mining and fencing begins peoples’ interests will be protected.

Afghanistan’s journey to recovery is likely to be a difficult journey. Yet for Pakistan the only policy option is to provide substantive support and at all times remain engaged in dialogue with Afghanistan. For Pakistan’s own interest and the interest of the entire region Afghanistan’s rapid recovery and reconstruction has to be a priority goal. The temporary irritants in the Pakistan-Afghan relationship notwithstanding, as Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz aptly said in Kabul "Pakistan believes in a sovereign, independent Afghanistan and will stand by it in all odds."