Pakistani officials often hold external factors responsible for the country’s negative image abroad. They pay little attention to their own conduct that in many cases is the cause of such perceptions. A little scrutiny of recent events suggest that civilian and military bureaucracy itself often thinks and acts in self-destructive ways, nullifying even the best of endeavours.
Three case studies illustrate how institutional inertia, little or no proactive thinking and absence of a whole-of-government approach combine make our actions appear contrary to what the state of Pakistan commits itself to.
Firstly, Pakistan is implementing a scholarship programme for 3,000 Afghan students through the Higher Education Commission (HEC). The first batch of students will likely join Pakistani educational institutions in a few weeks. It is a big investment in Afghanistan’s future leaders as well as a means to promote bilateral relations.
Additionally, around 150 seats reserved in Pakistani medical colleges for foreign students are usually taken up by Afghan students, mostly on self-finance basis.
But grant of visa application remains a big hassle for prospective students. Upon their arrival, Afghan students are required to report to local offices of Special Branch within a week from where they can get their short-term visa extended for a longer period of time. The process, however, is not smooth in most cases. Neither is it corruption free. Occasional hold-up by the police or security agencies is another headache for the guest students just because there is no standard operating procedure (SOP) to guide the security authorities.
Manhandling of such cases obviously leads to bad blood, and a negative image for Pakistan. Such cases often entail additional headache for the HEC itself. Officials at HEC have in fact been proposing to act as one-window clearance for Afghan students screened at its premises.
The self-funded Afghan students face even tougher conditions. Though enrolled for multi-year programmes of study, such students are issued a four-week visa that they must get renewed every month from across the border. This frustrating exercise means waste of time, money and energy.
This makes a mockery of the new visa regime for all Afghans that the government had announced a year ago with great fanfare and promise.
The actual implementation, particularly for students and common Afghans, is not only turning out to be painful for the visitors but also hurting Pakistan’s image in Afghanistan. There clearly is a disconnect between the policy and the practice on ground and that is not helpful at all for reviving the goodwill Pakistan once enjoyed in Afghanistan.
One remedy for preventing the negative fallout of mishandling could be to authorise the HEC as a facilitator and guarantor for extension or renewal of the visa.
The second case relates to the Pakistan Day celebrations at the Pakistan embassy in Kabul. Ironically, none of the few Afghan friends, who had been a regular part of a Pak-Afghan Track 1.5/11 dialogue since 2015 were invited to the cultural evening this year.
This happened despite the fact that the then ambassador Syed Abrar Hussein invited us all every time we visited Kabul. Most of the staff remains the same but it seems they attach little value to the importance of social networking and building onto the relations we have been painstakingly stitching together against heavy odds since 2015. Some of Pakistan’s friends in Afghanistan are either members of the Parliament or they sit at the High Peace Council. Some are former ministers as well. But, it seems, the embassy looked at them as friends of certain personnel and not worth reaching out to as Pakistan’s friends.
A National Day or a cultural evening is certainly great public relations occasions – but probably only if the organisers understand the importance. It was sad indeed to learn from our friends that none of them had been invited to the embassy. And this makes it understandable why Pakistan has steadily lost space in Afghanistan.
The third case is of Afghan students enrolled at the Peshawar University. On Thursday (August 17), the Peshawar police declined permission to several Afghan students to celebrate their Istiqlal Day on campus. Instead of facilitating students in celebrating a day of national significance for them, it seems the police and the authorities became a hurdle, losing yet another opportunity to win over the Afghan youth.
Pakistan needs a much more proactive and strategically tailored approach to regain the confidence of Afghans. No amount of education scholarships or lofty political rhetoric will be enough if Pakistan’s civil and military bureaucracy continues to pursue narrow-ended administrative policies. A nuclear-armed country with the seventh largest military has to conduct a pro-active diplomacy with a large heart instead of stooping to a tit-for-tat strategy in dealing with Afghans at large and the youth in particular?