Since Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot change their geographical locations, it is in their long-term economic and security interests to bury their acrimonious past and forge effectual ties. Whenever Islamabad and Kabul remain at loggerheads due to cross-border terrorism, India grabs the opportunity by further driving a wedge between the two countries, to maximise its hegemonic designs in the turbulent region.
The recent visit of Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the DG ISI to Kabul yielded some positive results by allaying the mounting Afghan reservations about sanctuaries of the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban across the border. More importantly, Pakistan’s military diplomacy seems to have largely removed the wall of mistrust between both the countries as seen from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s announcement to visit Pakistan soon.
One of the major breakthroughs of the ongoing Pak-Afghan bonhomie is the resumption of the Afghan peace process under the stalled Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). The QCG was established in December 2015 during the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad. The quartet was primarily designed to make joint efforts to effectively facilitate direct talks between the National Unity Government of Afghanistan and the resurgent Taliban. The group had held five meetings before the process met a dead end after Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansur was killed in a drone strike by the US in Balochistan in July 2016.
The QCG’s members – America, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan – lately held extensive discussions in Muscat to bring the crisis-ridden Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiating table with an eye to end the snowballing Afghan insurgency and bring about lasting serenity there. These discussions were unlikely to produce any positive result on account of the stunning failure of the quartet to include the Taliban in peace negotiations. As the regionally-funded Taliban controls almost 40 percent of Afghanistan, there will be no meaningful tranquillity and reconciliation with the exclusion of the group in negotiations.
Apart from the QCG forum, Pakistan and Afghanistan should hold timely discussions and extend the required security and economic cooperation for lasting stability in the Pak-Afghan region. Despite sharing identical security objectives in the terror-infested region, both countries have displayed a reluctance to harness the potential of bilateral economic and security cooperation. In today’s highly globalised world, such obstructive behaviour shown by Kabul and Islamabad does not serve the interests of poverty-stricken Pakistan and terror-ravaged Afghanistan.
It is axiomatic that the current Afghan government is mostly at the beck and call of India on account of New Delhi’s burgeoning financial and military assistance to Kabul. Under the influence of the supremacist Modi government, Afghanistan has continued to point an accusing finger towards Pakistan for allegedly harbouring some elements of the Afghan Taliban and the notorious Haqqani Network. The Afghan leadership complains that considerable regional support has operationally helped the Afghan Taliban capture over 40 percent of Afghan territory.
The changing security dynamics of the protracted Afghan war has compelled Kabul’s neighbours to militarily back up the Taliban. In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan, these regional powers have augmented their financial and military assistance to the battle-hardened Taliban. Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan are alive to the fact that Washington is covertly involved in supporting Daesh in Afghanistan to create troubles inside these countries. Such a disruptive proxy war will further destabilise an already war-torn Afghanistan and complicate the open-ended Afghan peace talks.
It is encouraging that Pakistan and the US have recently ratcheted up their intelligence coordination against terrorists and militants along the Durand Line. Greater cooperation has thus far resulted in the safe release of the American-Canadian couple with children and the killing of APS mastermind Umar Mansoor and Umar Khalid Khorasani, chief of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA).
Though American drones have killed some outlawed terrorists, Pakistan still has its misgivings with regard to Indian covert backing of Pakistani terrorists and insurgents ensconced in eastern Afghanistan. If Kabul wants Islamabad to prevent operatives of the Afghan Taliban from sneaking cross Pakistan’s tribal areas, it should not permit India to use Afghan soil for terrorist and insurgent activities inside Pakistan.
Almost all countries have some sorts of economic and security divergences with each other. But that does not mean that they should avoid forging relations in those areas where their core interests largely converge. For instance, despite having serious territorial and security issues, China and India have increased the amount of bilateral trade close to $100 billion. So, Pakistan and Afghanistan should learn a lesson and initiate economic relations. The two countries have long adopted obstructive economic policies towards each other, although there exists a huge potential for mutual trade.
Despite the increasing rapprochement between Islamabad and Kabul, the latter has unilaterally put off a meeting of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Coordination Authority (APTTA). It is pertinent to mention that APTTA has been designed to help facilitate the timely execution of a revised and effectual transit treaty between the two countries.
APTTA has failed to function well mainly due to inordinate delays created by Kabul. Such behavior has resulted in a substantial decrease in Pakistan’s exports to Afghanistan over some years. When Pak-Afghan relations were on an upward curve in 2010, Pakistan’s export to Afghanistan had reached an all-time high of $2.4 billion. But, the ongoing failure of bilateral trade discussion has resulted in over 27 percent drop in these exports. Such a decline in bilateral trade does not bode well for the two countries’ future economic trade and security cooperation.
Given the porous nature of the Durand Line, Islamabad and Pakistan cannot permanently eliminate disrupting cross-border terrorism and militancy without the earnest support of each other. The continual blame game and mudslinging between the two countries have greatly helped the TTP, Daesh and the Afghan Taliban to successfully target government institutions and public spaces in both the countries.
It is now an open secret that some hostile regional powers have continued to count on Pak-Afghan mistrust and hostility to arm, train and finance terrorists and insurgent in the region. Under the Doval doctrine, the Modi government has reportedly assigned a special task to RAW with regard to sanctuaries and launch pads for fleeing fugitives and insurgent groups.
The non-cooperative behaviour of the current Afghan government bodes ill for the security of the Pak-Afghan region. On account of the increased international pressure, Islamabad has mostly dismantled the organisational structures of all major terrorist and militant outfits from its once unlawful tribal areas. Now, most of these areas are under the firm control of the army. But, Pakistan cannot successfully conclude its costly counterterrorism operations without serious Afghan support against the cross-border infiltration of terrorists.
The recent release of the American-Canadian couple shows that Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US need meaningful intelligence coordination to permanently flush out militants and inhibit cross-border terrorism. Even though Pakistan has eliminated most of the hardened and regionally-funded terrorists and militants through operations Zarb-e-Azb and Raddul-Fasaad, some battle-hardened militants of the TTP have fled to hide in some eastern districts of Afghanistan.
If Kabul stops India from sponsoring these terrorists and shares timely intelligence with Pakistan, the two countries will be able to prevent cross-border penetration of terrorists and insurgents. Meaningful cooperation on the security front will also help Kabul and Islamabad foster economic ties.