Disquiet on the Western Front

By: Rustam Shah Mohmand
Published: April 1, 2017
Print This Post

Suspicions, some genuine and some unfounded, throughout history have caused irreparable damage in inter-state relations, especially when policies are formulated, or decisions made, on the basis of unverified assumptions or uncorroborated beliefs.

A classic case is how Japan was induced into attacking Pearl Harbour in December 1941, in a carefully orchestrated trap, that was designed to end the US’s neutrality and make it a war partner of Britain to ensure the Allied victory some four years later.

In the context of Pak-Afghan relations, suspicions on both sides abound. Afghanistan has this erroneous belief that Islamabad wants to establish hegemony and control over Kabul’s policies. This belief owes its origin to the part Pakistan played in helping the ‘Mujahideen’ against the former Soviet Union in the eighties.

Afghanistan also presumes that Pakistan has been covertly fanning ethnic-based politics in that country by raising the issue of Pakhtun marginalisation and is unhappy over Pakistan trying to limit India’s role in their country. There is a feeling in Afghanistan that Pakistan, rather than working on promoting peace in the war-ravaged country, is more focused on containing the role and influence of India.

Conversely, Pakistan has this naïve suspicion that Kabul has been playing into India’s hands. The extent of India’s influence in Kabul is so vastly exaggerated that it creates an impression that all decisions at the macro-level that affect ties with Islamabad, are taken with the consent of New Delhi.

There is a well entrenched lobby in Pakistan that continues to foster this claim that the ‘Northern Alliance’ is an inveterate enemy of Pakistan that would never permit the deepening of ties between the two countries

Pakistan also presumes that Afghanistan has been tacitly lending its support to those Afghans, as well as Pakistani dissidents, currently operating from Afghanistan in launching attacks against Pakistani installations and security forces.

There is a well entrenched lobby in Pakistan that continues to foster this claim that the ‘Northern Alliance’ is an inveterate enemy of Pakistan that would never permit the deepening of ties between the two countries.

The Northern Alliance does not exist in Afghanistan any longer. But Pakistan’s arm-chair analysts continue to promote theories based on the continuing relevance of an entity that no longer exists.

Sadly, no serious endeavour is being made to understand and get past the many invalid assumptions and deep-rooted suspicions that have blocked the road to reconciliation. There could be some rapprochement, in the short term, if a broad engagement begins to take shape, which is designed to create a conducive environment for fostering sustainable relations in sectors like trade and commerce, education, agriculture, health, IT, water management, mineral exploration, environment etc.

But while attention is focused on improving bilateral relations, one should not overlook the most potent obstacle to reconciliation – the continuing conflict in Afghanistan. The plain fact is that, for a variety of reasons, the full potential of Pak-Afghan relations will never be realised till war continues in Afghanistan.

As long as there is a conflict in which a large number of people are taking part, in which people are divided and the innocent getting killed every day, relations between Islamabad and Kabul would never be normal or friendly – because Kabul would continue to harbour this feeling of ‘insurgents’ receiving support from bases in Pakistan.

Furthermore, because the regime has not been able to suppress the resistance, it will continue to blame Pakistan in order to hide its failure and still continue to receive American assistance.

There is a powerful lobby within the Afghan Government that continues to support the status quo because it delivers power, money and important positions in the government. They are the beneficiaries of US largesse. The country has received billions of dollars in economic assistance over the last 15 years and a large part of this funding has found its way into assets being created in the Middle East, Singapore, Europe and the US. Any change in the status quo would gravely affect their fortunes or diminish their power, influence or control.

There is a powerful lobby within the Afghan Government that continues to support the status quo because it delivers power, money and important positions in the government. They are the beneficiaries of US largesse

Pakistan has not been able to factor in the ground realities while formulating its policy towards Afghanistan. Using its leverage, resources and contacts, Islamabad should have embarked upon a policy that would have clearly conveyed its abiding and genuine interest in peace and stability in that country. It should have taken steps to dispel the impression that it supports one faction or one ethnic group in that country.

It should have, by a series of measures, tried to wipe out this impression that Pakistan wants to promote its hegemony in that country and taken the government, political and tribal leaders into confidence about our goals and objectives in Afghanistan.

The impression that Pakistan is obsessed with India’s role or influence in Kabul should be dispelled by a policy of engagement with government and political leaders, media, academics and think tanks.

Above all, Pakistan must relentlessly pursue its agenda of reconciliation in Afghanistan. In undertaking this laudable goal Pakistan should first create an environment for genuine peace-making. Since Pakistan’s credentials are doubted by many in Kabul, it should consciously try to promote the role of China as a mediator. The time has come when Taliban would repose more trust in Chinese mediation efforts because they have many illusions about Pakistan’s motives, plans and its relations with the US.

China’s growing interest in peace-making should have been greeted with enthusiasm by Pakistan, because Beijing’s mediation would not have come at the expense of Pakistan’s interests.

The most troubling thing is the continuing enigma about the designs of the US in Afghanistan. Many are of the view that the US has the following goals to pursue by deploying American troops in that country:

  • To seek to contain China’s influence in the region
  • To keep a menacing watch over Pakistan’s fast track nuclear development programme
  • To intimidate Iran
  • To remain in contention for power and influence vis-a-vis Russia and China, in Central Asia, which has huge oil and gas reserves

There is common ground between the Afghan Government, the Taliban and the US. One solution that could be effective would require the Taliban to be mainstreamed into the government and electoral processes of the country under an amended, more Islamic Constitution, in an arrangement that ensures an end to the conflict and delivers durable peace.

To make that happen, all foreign forces would have to depart within a stipulated period of time. A grand jirga would determine the basis for forming an interim government, comprising leaders of the Taliban and other factions/groups and should be multi-ethnic, broad-based in its composition. Elections would be called within an agreed timeframe.

This arrangement can be created under the auspices of the United Nations and underwritten by countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the three Central Asian republics i.e. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Some such initiative would have to be launched sooner rather than later. Afghanistan’s unending bloodshed, displacement of people and collapsing economy, would have profound implications for the region.

Pakistan’s favourability rating in Afghanistan has plummeted to a dismal five percent while that of India has jumped to 74 percent. Islamabad must identify the reasons for this appalling decline in popularity in an important neighbouring country.

The imposition of rules like passports and visas for travelers has gravely affected the population on both sides. An easier way of regulating movement would be to allow people to cross over on the basis of identity cards. The diplomatic missions don’t have the capacity to issue thousands of visas every day.

How can one conceive of a country having hostile relations with two of its neighbours while constructing a 400 mile long trench with its third neighbor – Iran?

An important issue that would assume more relevance in the near future is the sharing of waters of Afghanistan’s eastern rivers which flow into Pakistan

Before handing over a list of people wanted by Islamabad, to Afghan authorities, Pakistan must realise that a large part of that country is without any writ or control of the Kabul government. A better option would be to seek more thorough institutionalised interaction particularly between the concerned border officials. But for that to happen, Islamabad and Kabul would have to remove mutual suspicions about each other’s motives and stop maligning each other’s conduct or agenda.

An important issue that would assume more relevance in the near future is the sharing of waters of Afghanistan’s eastern rivers which flow into Pakistan. The Kabul River that enters Pakistan in Shilman, between Khyber and Mohmand Agencies, contributes about 16 percent water to the overall Indus River system. Afghanistan is planning to construct hydropower dams and storage reservoirs upstream that will profoundly impact the downstream riparian communities.

The two countries must address this very serious problem by concluding a water-sharing agreement as soon as possible. In fact, they should begin to devise ways and means of collaborating to ensure that soil erosion is reduced, water losses are minimised, afforestation is increased and ecological damage contained. This is critical for the sustainability of the fragile ecosystem as well as for a rising population that would need more water in the years to come.

Issues like drugs and cultivation of opium poppy, can be addressed by working together with technical assistance and resources being provided by the international community. The two countries must embark upon a plan of a border infrastructure development project that encompasses sectors like quality education, electricity – particularly solar energy – roads, hospitals, IT centres, children’s parks and residential enclaves for employees with all facilities. The UN and other donors could contribute to such a project that would transform lives and deal decisively with the menace of terrorism.

Minerals worth billions of dollars are waiting to be explored and exploited. Besides oil and gas, there are deposits of lithium, gold, copper, precious stones like lapis lazuli and a host of other minerals. Professional mining of these minerals would open new avenues for economic prosperity leading to stability and peace.

Afghanistan faces a multi-dimensional crisis – the economy is about to collapse, opium production and its use is growing, unemployment has peaked, frustration with the Government has increased, corruption is unchecked, poverty has taken hold like never before and fighting goes on unabated. A more future-oriented vision, that takes into account the ground realities, has to be created for meeting the enormous challenges that the two countries confront.

Both countries should, in trying to find common ground, be cognisant of the opportunities that lie ahead as work on gigantic projects like the Turkmenistan gas pipeline, CASA 1000, Tajikistan power lines and CPEC get underway. These projects will help change lives and missing these opportunities would destroy the hope of millions of poor, impoverished people of both countries.

About the Author
Rustam Shah Mohmand
is a specialist on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and has served as Pakistan’s interior secretary and Ambassador to Afghanistan. He has also served as the Political Agent in FATA