Current Affairs

On November 19, 2020, Pakistan’s PM paid a long-awaited daylong visit to Afghanistan. The intent of the visit was to deepen “fraternal bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” advance the Afghan peace process and promote “regional economic development and connectivity.

The visit came on the heels of a number of confidence-building measures and a series of preceding high-level visits to improve bilateral trust and develop a more conducive environment for peaceful ties that could transform the nature of this important relationship. Due to common and mutual interests, as well as the commitment to improve them further – such as through these contacts between representatives of both countries – bilateral engagement between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been on an upward trajectory in recent months.  For instance, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council on National Reconciliation visited Islamabad in September. This was followed by visits of Rahman Rahmani, Speaker of Afghanistan’s lower house of Parliament, and Nisar Ahmad Ghoraini, the Afghan Commerce Minister. IMRAN KHAN’S VISIT TO KABUL: AN ASSESSMENT

Islamabad has also in recent months made several visits and shown a commitment to peaceful ties and friendship with its western neighbor.  Following its nuanced approach to expanding its engagement beyond Pashtun groups to all ethnic factions within Afghanistan, Islamabad has also welcomed the visits of Haji Muhammad Mohaqiq Head of Hizb-e-Wahdat Mardam-e-Afghanistan in 2019, and more recently also the leader of the Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s in October 2020.  Prime Minister Khan’s visit thus did not come in a vacuum. The groundwork had been prepared with both countries moving towards a new phase in ties after decades of instability. Prime Minister Khan stated that the purpose of his visit was to assure the Afghan government that. “Pakistan will do everything possible to help reduce violence and in fact move towards a ceasefire.

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While there is much goodwill and a desire to improve the relationship behind Prime Minister Khan’s statement, as it highlights Pakistan’s effort to address mutual mistrust and improve bilateral relations at a time when Afghanistan is undergoing far-reaching changes, at the same time it puts Pakistan in a difficult and challenging position.  

Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process has been well-known and extensively discussed. Publically as well as privately, Islamabad has been pushing both sides in Afghanistan – the government and the Taliban – to engage with each other in the hope of a peaceful settlement. These efforts have resulted in the US Taliban agreement of 2020 and the subsequent and ongoing intra-Afghan talks. IMRAN KHAN’S VISIT TO KABUL: AN ASSESSMENT

Despite the positive intent of Prime Minister Khan’s commitments to ending violence and moving toward a ceasefire, as noted above, such declarations bring their own set of challenges. It puts Pakistan in a compromising position: on the one hand, the country is making promises it may not be able to keep, and it is doing so also while raising expectations in Afghanistan.  If Pakistan is unable to convince the Taliban to end all violence, it is not inconceivable that the blame for this will fall on Pakistan – as has been the case in the past.

However, focusing on singular statements is also not desirable, since the visit itself is symbolically significant. It was a welcome and much-needed booster for bilateral relations at a time when both sides should be cognizant that the relationship has improved after real hard work. Thus, while such high-level visits continue, and the leadership of both countries expresses their commitment to peace, collaboration, and the development of ties on mutual fronts, Islamabad should be cautious when making unrealistic promises. This is since failure on one front can derail progress in other aspects, and can give impetus to the narrative in Kabul and the US that Islamabad is in lockstep with the Taliban and not committed to seeing peace and security in Afghanistan. IMRAN KHAN’S VISIT TO KABUL: AN ASSESSMENT

There are precedents for this to show that this is not simply hypothetical – for instance, as experienced in the aftermath of Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan in 2014, all the positive goodwill and momentum generated amounted to nothing when Pakistan was unable to meet Afghan expectations which sent the bilateral relationship to a downward spiral.  For far too long, Afghanistan’s stance regarding Pakistan’s role in peace and stability as well as the ongoing peace process with the Afghan Taliban has been somewhat contradictory. Time and again, Afghan authorities have accused Pakistan of supporting and abetting the Taliban. And yet at the same time, they have solicited Pakistan to play a role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan is thus walking on a tightrope.

Therefore, Pakistan must be cautious in what it can do and what it can deliver. This includes such pledges because at the end of the day, talking to the Taliban and reaching a compromise is solely in the hands of the Afghans themselves.

 With promises about the peace process, there is a tendency to continue to limit the relationship to security. Expanding the contours of the ties to other fields such as trade, regional connectivity, people to people ties, and not limiting it to the peace process or security alone is thus important for both countries.

As history has shown, it is in any case difficult to broach these subjects and remain committed to them in a relationship that has been based on one primary concern: security. In this regard, it was encouraging to see both President Ghani and Prime Minister Khan focusing on the need to broaden other aspects of their bilateral relationship such as trade and regional connectivity, with the Prime Minister also adding, “The only way to help people on both sides of the border is by peace, trade, and connectivity

In order to expedite the agreement, both sides agreed on a time framework to identify officials to implement the agreed proposals, beginning with December 15, 2020, in which both sides would commence joint intelligence cooperation.

Clearly highlights that the relationship is moving in the right direction. It is hoped that this positive momentum is maintained because as has been seen in the past, the positives can very easily be replaced by the negatives.  Such as the US decision to further reduce military presence in Afghanistan, the ongoing US presidential transition, as well as the stagnant intra-Afghan dialogue, and continuing violence on the part of the Taliban. Considering the fragility of the dialogue process then, the crucial nature of the visit is evident to all observers of the region.  Prime Minister Khan’s visit came a day after Pentagon announced a reduction in the number of US troops from the current 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January 2021.

This announcement has sped up the timeline agreed upon between the Afghan Taliban and the US in the Doha agreement from mid-2021 to early 2021. It has also indicated a policy paralysis in the US where a Presidential transition is underway with outgoing President Donald Trump seeking to end the US war in Afghanistan, resulting in further instability in the peace process.

Furthermore, uncertainty revolves around the Biden administration’s policy towards the Afghan peace process, the US-Taliban agreement, and even the role of US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. The Taliban, on their part, have expressed hope that the Biden administration will maintain the Doha agreement.

For Pakistan, relations and peace with Afghanistan should not be dependent exclusively on what the US does or does not do. Peace in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s intrinsic self-interest. The future of the region depends on it.

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