Irrespective of how Afghan and Pakistani leaders – including Presidents Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari – characterise their relations, it is a pretty complicated relationship, heavily tainted by suspicion, misgivings, and mistrust. The February 26 attacks on two specific targets in Kabul resulting in the killing of nine Indian nationals, followed by shooting dead of four Pakistani workers in the Panjwai district of Kandahar on March 4th, clearly underscored the kind of the so-called India-Pakistan proxy war that has been going on in Afghanistan. None of the governments would concede it but both clearly remain stuck in the cold-war era mindset that is guided by intelligence agencies and not rational intellect. This is something all three countries need to come clean on.
As far the ground realities, Kabul and Kandahar are awash with popular negative perceptions about Pakistan’s role in the region; from professors to politicians, students to state officials and from vendors to traders, the majority of Afghans seem united in suspecting Pakistan of playing a double-game. On the one hand, so runs the deep-seated perception, Pakistan is collecting billions of dollars from the West in the name of the anti-terror war, and on the other, it backs some of the terrorist groups that are hurting Afghanistan’s interests.
Dr Rangeen Dafdar Spanta, Afghanistan’s ex-foreign minister who now heads the National Security Council (NSC), recently articulated these perceptions more vocally and directly: a) most Afghans think that all terrorist outfits and sanctuaries have official support, and b) Pakistanis believe the Indians are using Afghanistan (for terror acts in Pakistan). In a recent meeting with Pakistani academics and writers at his new office, Dr.Spanta said that these perceptions were directly affecting Afghanistan, and until they are corrected through a bilateral or trilateral dialogue hopes for improving relations would remain elusive. He also reiterated that the Haqqani network, the Quetta shura and Hekmatyar remained Afghanistan’s primary concerns.
While most Afghan officials appreciated the current crackdown on the Afghan Taliban and were all praise for the recent arrests of Mullah Baradar, Maulvi Kabir, Syed Tayyab Agha and several others; yet they insist that Pakistan must stay the course. They also appear wary of “Pakistan’s paranoia about the Durand Line”. Dr Spanta played this down as “no main dispute” and advised that rather than stoking a controversial issue, Pakistani officials and civil society should concentrate on economic, parliamentary and intellectual cooperation and project their existing strengths.
Dr Spanta recalled all the good that “Pakistan did to millions of Afghans” but underlined that the bilateral relationship must move beyond those acts of kindness. We must bring generals and intelligence officials together – from all the three countries to talk out differences. Cooperation and sustained dialogue among the intelligence and military establishments of both countries is the pre-requisite for better relations and the correction of perceptions. Discussions with diplomats and intellectuals also yield similar suggestions: they believe that Pakistan must project its soft power instead of indulging in controversial arguments. They point out that more than 52,000 Afghans cross the border both ways every day; the Pakistan embassy in Kabul issued over 200,000 visas in 2009 and the number is likely to cross 250,000 during the current year.
Meanwhile, at least 28,000 Afghan graduates currently occupy key positions in the government and the non-governmental sector of their country. A fair number of them studied in Pakistan. For instance, 26 people at the Asian Development Bank — which constitutes almost all the organisation’s staff in Afghanistan — graduated from Pakistan.
According to rough estimates almost two-thirds of the third echelon and above in the Afghan government — officials, advisors and ministers — have lived in Pakistan or continue to maintain homes in Pakistan. At the moment, some 6,000 Afghan students are studying at various Pakistani institutions.
At the same time Pakistan emerged, in 2009, as Afghanistan’s second-largest trading partner with the bilateral trade shooting up to $1.9bn, a 40 per cent increase from the previous year. Afghanistan, for instance, imported 8,000 tons of Pakistani cement daily during the summer, while the daily import in the winter months remained around 5,000 tons. Officials dealing with trading circles believe that the informal trade between the two countries hovers around $2bn.
Pakistani products are abundantly available in the Afghan market, from packed milk and cream to water, sugar, edible oil, wheat flour and medicines, also constitute living proof of the formal and informal trade between the two countries. And in terms of Afghan exports, about 50 per cent of its fresh and dry fruit lands in Pakistan — officially.
Meanwhile, as many as 60,000 Pakistani skilled workers and experts, from masons to IT and banking professionals, are currently busy in various sectors of the Afghan economy.
One of the Afghan complaints relates to the lack of Pakistani media representation in Kabul. They are probably right in pointing out that none of the leading Pakistani media institutions maintains even a regular, full-time stringer in Kabul. The only Pashto language channel, Khyber TV, does have a presence in Kabul and Jalalabad but only through stringers and lacks a regular office. Similarly, despite their exports to Afghanistan, Pakistani companies do not advertise for their sales’ promotion. And Afghans, traumatised by almost three decades of conflict, obviously take offence at these facts.
Frequent civil society engagement and parliamentary contacts might mitigate mutual grievances, reduce antagonism and gradually transform militant, antagonistic behaviours into reconciliatory and cooperative dialogue between the people and governments of the two countries. Because of the mutual mistrust, non-partisan organisations such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, which facilitated the delegation’s Kabul visit and plans to turn this into a regular mechanism, can also play a crucial role in this regard. During the visit, the Kabul and Peshawar Universities did sign a Letter of Intent for an academic exchange programme.
But most of the Pakistani and Afghan academics and intellectuals also pointed out the strict visa regimes that currently govern the two-way traffic. Despite the heavy rush of visitors from both sides, diplomatic missions of both countries usually issue single-entry visas which at times cause convenience as well for those confronted with unforeseen situations.
Afghans, themselves despondent and craving for real rehabilitation and reconstruction, desire regional counter-terrorism strategies because the terror networks active in the region extend beyond national borders; while officials must pursue this, engagement in non-controversial areas such as education, trade and culture could help both countries in moving from their stated positions and mutual bickering.