There are credible portents to suggest that Pakistan and Afghanistan were poised to make a new beginning in their relations as both sides seemed to have realised the importance of a strong relationship, necessary to meet the security and economic challenges facing them.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, addressing a joint press conference in Islamabad, echoed unanimous endorsement of these objectives and expressed their unflinching resolve to pursue them through joint efforts. Both sides have also pledged to fight the extremism and terrorism jointly and create an environment that helps build a robust economic partnership, expand trade relations, promote investment, improve infrastructure, build road and rails links and enhance collaboration in the energy sector.
In this regard, the Afghan president made it a point to particularly mention that bottlenecks in the expansion of trade relations between the two countries had been removed within three days, something that could not be achieved over the past thirteen years.
The Afghan president, while addressing the participants of the Trade and Investment Conference organised by the Ministry of Commerce which was attended by business tycoons from Pakistan and Afghanistan, emphasised the need to reverse the history of uneasy relations between the two countries marred by suspicion and distrust and to start an era of mutual economic dependence to establish strong linkages between South Asia and Central Asia for shared regional prosperity. He said Pakistan and Afghanistan would have to strive hard together to achieve these objectives. In his meeting with the COAS he sought Pakistan’s help in managing the porous border between the two countries and training the Afghan army.
What the Afghan president said was the demand of the new geo-political realities and in complete harmony with Pakistan’s new narrative on relations with Afghanistan, economic linkages with Central Asia and the goals set for security and stability in both the countries and consequently in the entire region, an initiative on which the civilian and military leadership have a unanimous view. The Afghan president’s visit to Pakistan preceded by visits to Afghanistan by National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and DG ISI Rizwan Akhtar signify the intensity of the desire that both countries have to make a new beginning in their relations in the interest of the economic wellbeing of their people and the improvement of the security environment.
Having cordial and cooperative relations with all the countries of the region is no doubt a much desired need dictated by the emerging realities of the world as well as historical bonds but improvement of relations with Afghanistan is of paramount importance for Pakistan and vice versa. Pakistan cannot live with strife-ridden Afghanistan, and Afghanistan can also not afford instability and insecurity within our borders. Both are abiding stakeholders in the stability, sovereignty and prosperity of each other. It is really a matter of great satisfaction that this realisation now permeates the decision-making echelons on either side.
In the backdrop of the pullout of the US-Nato forces from Afghanistan and the installation of a new democratic government cognizant of the need to give new direction to bilateral relations between the two countries, underpinned by mutual trust and cooperation, new and genuine possibilities have emerged to redraw the economic and security profiles of both the countries which need to be exploited through a pragmatic and visionary handling by leaders of both countries. The visit of the Afghan president has undoubtedly provided that unique opportunity to take the plunge towards their declared goals.
The replacement of the security-centric narrative that characterised relations between the two countries for well over two decades by a realistic combination of mutual security concerns and commitment to exploit the existing economic potential in the two countries and a desire for economic integration between South Asia and Central Asia, are indeed the strong pillars on which future relations between the two countries can be built. The new technologies available to develop the necessary infrastructure also promise infinite opportunities for greater regional connectivity through the implementation of trans-regional projects like CASA-1000 and Tapi.
Another strong contributing factor for facilitating regional connectivity is the Chinese interest in the rebuilding of Afghan economy and containing the scourge of terrorism in China’s Xinjang province, in collaboration with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The issue also figured in talks between Prime Minister Nawaz and Chinese leaders during the former’s recent visit to China.
Nawaz Sharif assured the Chinese leaders of Pakistan’s unqualified support in this regard. Both sides also agreed to eliminate terrorism from the region. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is central to taking the fight against terrorism to its logical end. Pakistan has already launched a decisive military action against the terrorists in North Waziristan; its success greatly depends on cooperation from Afghanistan in ensuring that the terrorists on the run from Pakistan do not find sanctuary in Afghanistan and those who are already stationed there and have been carrying out attacks on the Pakistani soil are effectively neutralised.
In the past Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite being allies in the war on terror, have accused each other of fomenting terrorist attacks. In this context the request for help by the Afghan president for managing the porous border between the two countries is of great significance as the ability of the two countries to check terrorism through a collaborative effort could go a long way in establishing peace in both countries and thus build strong economic ties.
Pakistan also reiterated its stance to back an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process of reconciliation in Afghanistan and of supporting the efforts of the democratic Afghan government in this regard. There are no two opinions on the fact that peace in Afghanistan and elimination of terrorism from the region are absolutely necessary in achieving regional connectivity and shared economic prosperity. That also makes it imperative and inevitable for the two countries to work together in overcoming the obstacles they face.