Source: The News International

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery 

Recently, it was announced that, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, will visit Kabul later this month. This would be PM Khan’s first official visit to Afghanistan since assuming power in 2018. It is expected that the premier will focus his attention towards urging disparate Afghan factions to pounce on the historic opportunity that the intra-Afghan dialogue offers for bringing in lasting peace in Afghanistan. Here, it must be stressed that, Pakistan’s singular motive behind its efforts in the ongoing Afghan peace process, has been to enable and encourage Afghans to chalk-out a prosperous future for themselves. This, according to Pakistan, is imperative for the region that is in dire need of economic integration and stability. Such an approach is commensurate with Pakistan’s foreign policy priority, which is to tap the rich potential that geo-economics brings to the table for the region. In this backdrop, there are three aspects that  should dictate Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan going forward.

The first and foremost is counterterrorism. That PM Khan’s maiden visit to Afghanistan comes on the heels of Pakistan’s detailed presentation of a dossier on Indian-sponsored terrorism is important and noteworthy. According to the dossier, there is incontrovertible evidence of how India is using Afghan territory to foment trouble inside Pakistan. It is worth mentioning that, anti-Pakistan groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its subsidiaries found safe havens inside Afghanistan, after these groups were flushed out by Pakistan through kinetic operations. What is more damning is how brazenly India is espousing those groups. All this has led to a resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan, a phenomenon that could disturb Pakistan’s quest to become an attraction for foreign investors and tourists. Thus, it is essential that, the Pakistani authorities vociferously take up the issue of sanctuaries in Afghanistan. If anything, this is a red line that, state as well as non-state actors in Afghanistan cannot breach. Islamabad should be very clear in enunciating that. Pakistan has to also lay bare the consequences for Afghanistan, in case it acts on behest of, or in connivance with inimical elements. In other words, Pakistan has to firmly articulate this: Pakistan’s good offices for disquisitions over peace in Afghanistan will only be open so long as its core interests are protected. Certainly, terrorism emanating from Afghanistan is something that Pakistan cannot and must not take lying down. Kabul has to be conveyed  in no uncertain terms that, Pakistan’s commitment to peace and counterterrorism is not a one-way street. It must be recalled that, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have time and again linked the improvements  of ties to efforts aimed at disallowing subversive actors from using their respective  territories  for terrorism and other destabilizing activities. Under the terms of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS), respecting territorial integrity is critical to fostering better Pak-Afghan ties.

It is noteworthy that, Pakistani officials, including PM Khan, have repeatedly cautioned Afghan interlocutors against giving space to spoilers. It would advisable for both countries to use existing mechanisms to broach the subject and accelerate cooperation and coordination on counterterrorism. In this regard, three working groups established under the APAPPS framework, to include Politico-Diplomatic, Military-to-Military Cooperation, and  Intelligence Cooperation, will be important conduits of engagement.

Tied to that is the need to streamline substantive, robust discussions on trade and connectivity. Pakistan’s vows to propel economic relations are creditworthy. Even during the raging pandemic, Pakistan decided to open 3 border crossings with Afghanistan, with a view to facilitating trade. Also, in the second review of APAPPS, both countries showed their willingness to negotiate terms of a new Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA). Recently, Pakistan also hosted a two-day seminar titled ” Pakistan-Afghanistan Trade and Investment 2020″ in a bid to explore new avenues for increasing bilateral trade. Pakistan should continue stressing the need for Afghanistan to take advantage from the mammoth China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Not only will that help connect Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with Central Asian Republics (CARs), but will also give a veritable trading outlet to Afghanistan. China’s eagerness to mitigate conflict in Afghanistan so as to promote economic connectivity and stability in its periphery, is a factor that could pull Afghanistan and Pakistan together on matters of trade and economics.

All this is, however, contingent upon political will and commitment towards uprooting the scourge of terrorism and cross-border militancy. While Pakistan has gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Afghanistan’s key concerns, by adopting a balanced approach in its dealings with various groups in that country, Afghanistan has oftentimes resorted to jingoism and whipped up anti-Pakistan rhetoric. In order to turn a page, that has to change.

The third element of the relationship going forward should focus on bolstering people-to-people contacts. Though Pakistan has enjoined upon Afghan authorities to cooperate on the dignified repatriation of Afghan refugees, it has not shut the doors on Afghans wanting to legally visit Pakistan for various purposes. Pakistan has increased the quota of Afghan students eligible to receive the Allama Iqbal Scholarships. This year, 800 Afghan students have been granted scholarships that will allow them to study in universities across Pakistan. It would be ideal for Islamabad to expand the scope of this scholarship, by inducting student and scholar exchange programs so as to create better understanding between the two academic communities.

Perception management efforts must be initiated in a bid to reshape narratives and stereotypes, media from both  sides must be engaged in a strategic manner. Softer image-projections of Afghanistan and Pakistan  through mainstream media will be instrumental in overcoming the ever-widening gulf of misperceptions. This should form the basis of a formal strategic communications scaffold, something  that will go a long way in denying space for rigorous, dangerous disinformation operations that are carefully-planned to dent Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors.

Arguably, there is great potential to rejig Pak-Afghan relations, much to the benefit of the region. That said, recalibration would be a pipe dream, absent an irreversible, concerted endeavor by Afghanistan to steer clear of the sources of instability in the region. For starters, Afghanistan should choose the road to economic security, rather than opt for one that leads to unbridled chaos.

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is Associate Editor, Pakistan Politico. He tweets: @syedalizia1992