Historical baggage at Kabul airport
By Imtiaz Gul
Friday Times, March 04, 2016
Parliamentarian Shazia Marri’s recent experience at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul shows how Pakistan and Afghanistan have a heavy baggage of historical acrimony and mutual suspicion to deal with.
Ms Shazia Marri flew from Karachi to Kabul – via Dubai – on March 1, to participate in the Pakistan-Afghanistan Beyond Boundaries Track II initiative. The organizers couldn’t make it to the protocol to receive her because the entire airport and the road leading to it had been literally sealed off due to two VVIP movements. Marri approached the immigration desk on her own. But to her surprise, the immigration officer got into an awkward, unwarranted microscopic scrutiny of her official passport. Meanwhile, he let an Indian passenger through with a wink, according to the member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. He began to ask her why the phrase “double entry” was handwritten. “He also tried to fault the visa, issued by the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad, on other flimsy grounds, holding me up for nearly 25 minutes,” an upset Shazia Marri recalled on the sidelines of the meeting.
“Immigration staff the world over do not treat people with official passports the way the Afghan officer treated me,” she said. Her experience surprised many in the hall.
Tensions are especially high at a delicate time in the region’s history. But there is a background to how the Afghans view Pakistanis today. Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s United Nations membership nearly seven decades ago. And the Afghans remember Pakistan’s role in the anti-Soviet jihad and the War on Terror – both led by the US. For some Afghans, Pakistan has become the “near enemy”, while all those who funded and guided the two aforementioned geo-political ventures have either been forgotten, or are seen as the “far enemy” and thus remain immune from these suspicions.
Security clearances for projects take months to arrive
My discussions with politicians, intellectuals and journalists revealed why Pakistan’s image in Afghanistan is so negative. Most Afghans view the country with extreme skepticism, at times with disdain, because they believe Pakistan wields enough clout with the Afghan Taliban to deliver, and even neutralize the insurgency in Afghanistan, if it so desired.
Dislike of Pakistan runs deep, particularly in the Afghan establishment. A dominant majority of Afghan politicians and commentators even refrain from linking the country with so much of the physical infrastructure projects – such as hospitals and educational institutions in Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif – that Pakistan has helped build. During seminars and bilateral interactions, Afghan delegates keep urging Pakistan to “accelerate and complete the projects it is funding in Afghanistan.” But they do mention those projects publicly, for the fear of being dubbed pro-Pakistan.
While Pakistan’s tardy bureaucratic system is one major hurdle in the way of these projects, systemic and reportedly deliberate delays by Afghan officials is another major challenge. Clearances for security-related issues or project-related permissions take months, thus causing inordinate delays. This too adds to the simmering resentment against Pakistan.
Comments sympathetic to Pakistan are treated as seditious
Islamabad seems to be caught up in the Shakespearian dilemma – to do or not to do that is the question. It is criticized if it helps in persuading the Taliban to join peace talks, and it is criticized if it doesn’t.
The Afghan media and politicians, for instance, used the talks to hammer the point that Pakistan does wield influence over Taliban. This should have helped in improving the narrative on Pakistan but it worked to the contrary – with systematic exclusion of its viewpoint from the public discourse. Often, comments supportive of or sympathetic to Pakistan are treated as seditious.
Some observers therefore wonder if publicly maligning and ostracizing a key member of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group can really be helpful in the peace process. It is quite obvious that if the national university government of Afghanistan and other important stakeholders mean well, the Afghan narrative on Pakistan can change. But right now, it is toxic and systematically refuses to accommodate anything but Pakistan-bashing on the media.
That is why the role of the media is a recurring topic in bilateral dialogue, as an essential tool for correcting perceptions and shaping narratives. Even during the recent round of Beyond Boundaries, delegates urged both the governments to facilitate reporting by the Afghan media from Pakistan and the Pakistani media from Afghanistan. They also agreed to “do our best to help improve narratives on both sides concerning the other country.”
One would assume that a “lone wolf” at the immigration desk of the Kabul airport merely vented his personal anger when he was embarrassing the Pakistani parliamentarian. One would also hope that the Afghan government, working so closely with Islamabad in the reconciliation process right now, would move swiftly to prevent such occurrences. A coordinated voice from the top can certainly help improve the narrative on Pakistan – something that is mutually beneficial and can help mitigate the woes of tens of millions of people on both sides of the Durand Line.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies