You have recently said this is a ‘new chapter’ in Pakistan-Afghanistan ties. What do you mean?
There has been a new beginning after the election of the National Unity Government in Afghanistan, especially after PresidentAshraf Ghani’s historic visit to Pakistan in November last year, when the governments of the two countries started an ongoinghigh-level strategic dialogue on security and economic cooperation. Peace and security in Afghanistan will have an immediate positive impact on peace and security in Pakistan. And there are very large energy reserves in Central Asia, and the only efficient way for Pakistan to access them is through Afghanistan.
Do you think Pakistan can give you access to India in return?
We should be able to take concrete steps when it comes to realizing the common vision of an integrated region. That’s what leadership demands and that’s what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has spoken about clearly for a long time.
How much has Operation Zarb-e-Azb helped?
Whatever steps the countries of this region, specifically Afghanistan and Pakistan, will take to counter terrorism and extremism,will have a positive impact on all the countries in the region.
The same is true for the operations we undertake, on a daily basis, especially right now against the so-called spring offensive. They also contribute to the peace, security and stability of the region.
There is criticism that many militants escaped into Afghanistan before the Zarb-e-Azb began?
There is a broad agreement between our two governments that the terrorists are more capable of going back and forth across frontiers, boundaries and borders. And states, especially of this region, are slower to respond, coordinate and cooperate.
Will the strategic dialogue you spoke about help overcome those limitations?
We have made progress. There is now a convergence on what the threat is, on the fact that we need to go after terrorists who are destabilizing both the countries, and that we need to go after them without any distinction. Now the task is to come up with a way to strengthen those existing methods for result-oriented cooperation.
Is President Ghani under public pressure to show concrete results for his overtures towards Pakistan?
I think you would agree that the expectations and hopes of this region, particularly the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are to see concrete progress in efforts towards peace. There is a common understanding and an agreement on the fact that Pakistan has a key role to play when it comes to supporting our peace efforts and reconciliation in Afghanistan and it is our hope that we see the tangible progress in this arena.
Is there a chance of a joint military operation?
We have never had any discussion on joint operations. What we have discussed and agreed to explore and undertake are coordinated or simultaneous operations. Afghan and Pakistani forces along the Durand Line will coordinate their operational plans so that when Pakistani forces are conducting an operation on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, the Afghan forces are fully in the picture, to make sure that there is no ingress of fleeing terrorists and to stop, arrest, counter or go after them. The same is for operations we plan in Afghanistan. We have had high-level exchanges between senior officers at the two-star, one-star level and lower levels.
There are claims that leaders of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, particularly Mullah Fazlullah, have found safe havens in Kunar?
The moment we have information about his or other individuals’ whereabouts, we will go after them if they happen to be on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. But I need to underline the fact that Afghan forces have undertaken specific military operations, on the Afghan side of the Durand Line, where there was presence of TTP militants, including in Kunar, where we have lost significant numbers of our soldiers, police officers and other personnel in going after them. We also managed to eliminate large numbers of foreign as well as local militants in those operations.
Do you feel some frustration when the Taliban attacks continue in Afghanistan despite this ‘new chapter’ in ties with Pakistan?
As they say, you cannot change your neighbor. But in Afghanistan, we are working towards normalized relations with Pakistan. In some ways, we are overcoming the legacy of many years, we are overcoming history in terms of the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Because of the strategic dialogue, we have a common definition of the problem that we confront, part of which is the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan have been in a state of undeclared hostility. And we need to overcome that. We do need to sequence the actions we have to take. There are some areas we think we need more urgent action than others. And security is absolutely one of those areas.
Afghanistan has always enjoyed a close and very warm relationship with India and that will continue. Our relationship with India is not new. It is a civilizational relationship.
Recently an Afghan journalist asked if India has lost Afghanistan to Pakistan. How would you comment on that?
People are entitled to their views. The government of Afghanistan has a very clear and sincere position. Afghanistan will never allow anyone to use the Afghan soil to play proxy games. We have suffered for far too long because of regional rivalries and proxy designs.
Since the Peshawar school attack, more than 65,000 illegal Afghans have been evicted from Pakistan. Does this concern you?
First of all I would like to reiterate my gratitude for the government and people of Pakistan for hosting millions of Afghan refugees for close to four decades, for opening their hearts and homes to their Afghan brothers and sisters. Afghan refugees have had the best experience of refugees, not only in this region, but probably the whole world. There is a clear agreement between the two governments on the return of Afghan refugees. There are three principles – their return will be voluntary, gradual and dignified.
We have assured the government of Pakistan about the determination of our government to create conducive conditions and environment inside Afghanistan to encourage refugees to return. The harassment of refugees, after the Peshawar attack, is something that we have discussed with the Pakistan government, both the federal and the provincial. There has been a significant reduction in cases of arrest of Afghan refugees, registered and unregistered, as well as forced expulsions.
The presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is a humanitarian issue and should continue to be treated as such by the government of Pakistan.
I am thankful to some of the senior leaders in Pakistan who have sympathetically listened to this problem. Abdul Qadir Baloch, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif first and foremost, Foreign Secretary Sartaj Aziz, Mr Imran Khan for addressing the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Pervez Khattak, who visited Kabul recently, and many others.
India and Bangladesh have resolved a decades old border dispute. Do you think a consensus can be reached on the Durand Line?
The issue of the Durand Line, its legal status and the decision about its future, is not in the hands of the Afghan government. It is the decision that the Afghan people will have to make at some point.
But the government represents the people
The Durand Line should not hamper cooperation. There are major large regional energy projects, such as CASA-1000, that will bring electricity from Central Asia to Afghanistan and also the TAPI gas pipeline.
And people moving back and forth across the Durand Line is not a concern?
That actually is a testament to how deep and close the ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan are.
How will the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor benefit Afghanistan?
Again, President Ghani has been very clear. Any step that is taken in this region for enhancing infrastructure and connectivity will have a positive impact on Afghanistan.
You have worked with both President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani. How are they different?
The “differences” between President Karzai and President Ghani are exaggerated. Both the leaders have an agreement when it comes to the need for normalized relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Afghan cricket team dazzled everyone in the Cricket World Cup 2015. How can you promote cricket diplomacy between Pakistan and Afghanistan?
We had a very successful match between the Teams A of the two countries in Islamabad. A lot of people watched it and it was broadcast live in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I believe we can do more when it comes to promoting cricket exchanges, at thenational level but also at the level of provincial teams.
And the women’s teams?
Yes. The women’s teams, the under-18 teams, the provincial teams. They have been here and I have had a few meetings withfriends from Pakistan Cricket Board. It is our hope that we will see more matches and exchanges in the coming months.