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OPED: Mending Fences – along the Af-Pak Border

Published in Lead Pakistan / Feb 2017

Pakistan and Afghanistan find themselves at crossroads. Pakistanis can rattle off all the reasons they think they have qualified for Afghanistan’s gratitude starting from their help in liberating them from the Soviet occupation to hosting millions of displaced Afghans and training their security forces to name but a few. Their Afghan neighbors on the other hand keep a list of grievances nearby to trump any grand gestures made in the past 4 decades.

Their relations may have soured over time but there are avenues of cooperation left open that can be explored. Overtures made by Pakistani State lately testify to their attempts at mending fences and the reciprocal moves by their Afghan counterparts may signal that peace and reconciliation may still be on the table. Pak COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa’s New Year phone call to Afghan leadership and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s invitation to visit make these important milestones. That momentum must not be lost in the fog of war. The stakes are too high and time is short.

The revival of the ISI – NDS agreement that promised intelligence sharing and security cooperation formulated in May 2015 comes at a crucial moment. At the time the deal was termed as against Afghan national interest. Now it may just be the lifeline needed to keep their joint national interest afloat. Earlier in February 2017, Pakistan is said to have captured and handed over suspected IS terrorists to Afghanistan that had entered its territory. After the Sehwan attack, Pak military reportedly provided the names of 76 terrorists to their Afghan counterparts in the hopes that Afghan security forces will take action. They have not done so. Pakistan in turn, targeted militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan, a first.

While fears that this could potentially wreck the fragile bonds of trust and deepen the divide remain – the incident highlights the urgency of solidifying a cohesive strategy to eliminate sanctuaries on either side of the divide. To that end, Pakistan has launched multiple operations to clear and secure its badlands and needs Afghanistan’s help in ensuring its success. That cannot happen if militants like JuA (splinter group TTP), that claimed the recent wave of attacks on Pakistani citizens continue to find safe havens beyond the wall. The rationale that a stick will not eliminate the threat may have some merit but not acting at all also has consequences. If those areas are beyond Afghanistan’s control and ISAF is unwilling or unable to strike the enemy camps, would Afghans prefer a joint military action (Af-Pak) against a common foe? At the same time, Afghanistan’s concerns about similar havens on Pak turf will also need to be allayed.

In an Al Jazeera segment, Davood Moradian - Director-General of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies decried the parallel approach towards Afghan Taliban and Afghanistan’s elected representatives implying that Pak State treated Afghan consulates spread across the country on par with the Taliban leadership mission in Quetta.

Not pushing the Taliban as stakeholders was laid out as a benchmark for CBM’s in future dialogues. The Pakistani State has been encouraged to take on the role of mediators between them on more than one occasion – and its sole interest has been to facilitate peace talks at the behest of Afghans. They no longer envision a 1990’s stylized Taliban led powerbase. And they withdrew support post 9/11 and paid the price in the form of blowback. Such characterizations, unfair though they may be, need to countered, especially since they can be used to fuel old fears and create fresh paranoia’s.

Both sides must find ways around the breach exacerbated by the Indian footprint, cross-border terrorism, Afghan leaderships' belligerent outlook and border disputes. Past the exodus of refugees which continues to generate negative publicity; and the rejection of monetary aid for said refugees from Pakistan that evokes widespread dismay. And recent attacks on Pakistani soil that elicited strong worded responses regarding Afghan based sanctuaries and led to a closure of Spin Boldak and Torkham gate. That threatens what little trade is left between these two neighbors and requires a diplomatic offensive to salvage relations.

For years Pakistan’s dry ports and sea ports have been used for bilateral trade with its landlocked neighbor. Afghanistan remains in search of greener pastures and Iran is their newest trading partner. They have also entered into a strategic partnership with India. Trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan has suffered of late. Cementing economic ties in times of war will be challenging given the stringent checks enforced at border crossings and outbreak of firefights across the LOC. It is inevitably the common man at the receiving end of these actions so keeping the supply lines running would make sense to safeguard the people’s trust.

For decades, Pakistan was considered to be second home to the displaced Afghan population. Of the 1.3 million registered and 1 million undocumented, 600,000 have already left. The State has extended their stay till December 2017. Refugee Repartition is a difficult decision and needs to be handled with compassion.

President Ghani recently alluded to a world ‘where order has been redefined’. “Now it is up to us to make it beneficial, damaging or disastrous.” It is good advice. They can also take a page out of the Chinese playbook. Afghans, do not air grievances in public. And Pakistan must keep the lines of communications open no matter what.


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