Pakistan and Afghanistan have made multiple attempts at re-setting their relations which are characterised by deep-rooted mutual mistrust. Unfortunately, these attempts have not been very successful.
Such efforts at normalisation of ties have almost become an annual affair. They give an impression of improvement, but those brief periods of respite do not last long. The two neighbours eventually relapse into acrimony. It has become such a regular feature of the Pak-Afghan relationship, that any move at fixing bilateral problems is usually treated with scepticism.
We are now at the start of another fresh attempt. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is set to visit Pakistan on June 27. It would be Ghani’s third visit to Pakistan since he assumed office in 2014. Islamabad, or more appropriately Rawalpindi, was one of his first foreign destinations as he came here in November 2014 and opened the two-day visit by meeting the then army chief General Raheel Sharif at GHQ. He later came here in December 2015 for Heart of Asia ministerial, but bitterness had begun to creep into his tone by then.
A lot has happened in the three and a half years since Ghani was last here. Quadrilateral Coordination Group came and faded away, Taliban leader Akhtar Mansoor was eliminated and new insurgent leadership was installed, trilateral mechanism involving the two countries and China was tried without much success, and we now have moribund Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS), which was launched last year with great fanfare, which we are now desperately trying to resuscitate.
The Afghan president, who met Prime Minister Imran Khan for the first time on the side lines of OIC Summit in Makkah last month since has unequivocally indicated that it would not be business as usual during his upcoming visit to Islamabad. Visits of foreign leaders are usually full of lot of protocol and formalities, but Ghani has said that he does not need that. He just requires “practical meetings” in Islamabad.
As always the upcoming visit is also being preceded with vows for a fresh start. “Afghanistan is ready to leave its bitter history with Pakistan behind, and move toward constructive state-to-state ties based on mutual respect rather than recrimination and hostility,” tweeted Ghani’s deputy spokesman Samim Arif.
One must not forget that the trip was planned when President Ghani phoned PM Khan on May 5 amidst faltering US-Taliban talks and growing deadly violence in Afghanistan. The intensity of violence in Afghanistan can be judged by the figures put out by an Afghan media outlet according to which 1,317 people were killed in just May.
Then there was a build up to the upcoming visit. First Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib visited Rawalpindi for preparatory talks focused on security, border management and reconciliation process. The security talks encouraged Ghani to meet Khan on the margins of OIC Summit. Mohib was, during the talks, told that Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) – a bilateral framework for driving the relationship, which had been created and virtually dumped last year – should be utilised for broader discussions.
It was in this context that the first review session of the APAPPS was held in Islamabad this week.
The five Working Groups of APAPPS – Politico-Diplomatic, Military-to-Military Coordination, Intelligence Cooperation, Economy and Refugee Issues – held their meetings to review the status of issues in their respective domains and chalk out a future course.
“During the meeting, the five working groups, led by their respective chairs, reviewed progress made in their areas. Action plans for future cooperation with focus on further expanding existing cooperation among relevant institutions were also discussed. In this regard, the importance of enhancing linkages in the political, diplomatic, security, trade, economic, cultural, educational, sports and people-to-people domains was underscored,” said a statement issued by the Foreign Office. The upshot of the meeting was perhaps the consensus that APAPPS was “the best forum to overcome common challenges and to take bilateral relations to the next level” and that higher level engagement must continue. A biannual review of progress under APAPPS was also agreed and the next session has been scheduled for December.
It is always good to see groundwork precede visits by top leaders as it sets the agenda for the meetings. The two sides have reached a consensus on working closely for expanding cooperation in the fields of energy, security, trade, and culture. This sounds exciting. It means the two sides realise the prospects and advantages of their cooperation. But, the question remains if that was enough to achieve sustainable progress in relations.
The answer is obvious. Probably not. Pakistan-Afghan relations are security centric and as long as there is no peace in Afghanistan all efforts and good intentions will keep failing, no matter how sincere they are. Pakistan has proverbially gone out on a limb to prove that it has little or no influence on Taliban, but that impression is not going away.
In April, PM Khan had to categorically state: “Pakistan will not be party to any internal conflict in Afghanistan anymore.”
The only hope for sustainable improvement in Islamabad–Kabul relations is in a successful reconciliation process leading to reduction in violence. US Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation Amb Zalmay Khalilzad, who is currently on a longer visit to Afghanistan, also emphasised this as he tweeted from Kabul “preparation for intra-Afghan negotiations now is essential.”
Kabul, meanwhile, too needs to see what it could do, despite all its limitations and constraints, to help Pakistan ensure security in its regions along the border. It needs to immediately cut all its support for elements using Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan. An assured Pakistan may probably be in a better position to help Afghanistan.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com