Afghanistan’s newly elected President, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, arrived in Islamabad on 14 November 2014, marking his first official trip to Pakistan since assuming office. Officials from both countries have underscored the unique opportunity this meeting presented for genuine efforts to be taken towards building bilateral relations.
Ghani’s two-day visit marked his government’s third official trip abroad and perhaps the most significant, following his earlier visits to Saudi Arabia and China; the two countries signed various agreements on economics, expanding existing areas of cooperation, and simultaneously made new pledges to improve relations to tackle insurgency and to ensure a successful Afghan peace process. Similarly, by charting a new era of bilateral relations reinforced by the two countries’ common needs for economic development and political stability, Ghani hopes to draw concrete results from his visit to Pakistan.
During his visit, Ghani met Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif. Unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, Ghani focused his talks with military and intelligence officials instead of just the civilian leadership. Discussions ranged from issues such as ways to improve economic cooperation to finding ways to ensure better border security and facilitating joint counter-terrorism efforts after the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
Transforming the Afghan economy is one of Ghani administrations’ ultimate objectives. “Our goal is to transform Afghanistan into transit hub for the region and that means we have to create the conditions for that” asserted Ghani during an interview with The Diplomat.
As part of this vision, opening up new avenues for trade and economic cooperation with Pakistan is considered a key facilitating factor. While in Islamabad, Ghani was accompanied by an army of 150 officials, including businessmen, civil society representatives, and members of the parliament. He also took along with him a high-level business delegation led by Chief Economic Advisor to the President, Omar Zakhilwal. A day before Ghani reached Islamabad, Zakhilwal and his Pakistani counterpart, Mohammad Ishaq Dar, agreed on concerted efforts to enhance bilateral trade from the existing $2.5 billion to 5 billion in the next two to three years. One way of achieving this, as stressed by the Afghan delegates, is to have Pakistan take the necessary steps in providing easy access for Afghan goods to Pakistan’s main port in Karachi and through the Wagah land-border with India.
Additionally, officials from both countries also mentioned that more exchanges of high-level delegations and mutual discussions, particularly on issues related to energy, road and rail links, were needed to ensure greater cooperation. Moreover, the two countries also agreed to employ betters measures for visa facilitation, particularly for businesses.
The general sentinment in Afghanistan and among many in Pakistan is that Ashraf Ghani’s presidency will lead to a fresh new page in Af-Pak relations. During Karzai’s period, tensions were rife between the two countries and their trust deficit tested all issues from counter-terrorism to security cooperation and the Afghan peace process. However, as Ghani himself stated, “The region has changed,” explaining that with this change an opportunity has emerged to transform once hostile relations into a symbiotic partnership. “This new government (Pakistan) realizes the deep economic problem that the country faces. It also realizes that extremism cannot be bounded in a neighbor or used against a neighbor and that it is a threat to all of us.”
Thus, Ghani utilised his visit to Pakistan to harness “a[n] honest partner in peace talks with the Taliban” and revive the stagnant Afghan peace process. Ghani hopes that Pakistan will assist Afghans in persuading insurgents to reconcile and reintegrate. In his last meeting with Pakistani officials, Ghani “set a 90-day deadline for implementation of commitments from both sides regarding peace talks with the Taliban.”
Optimism has certainly increased over better bilateral cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan after Ashraf Ghani’s visit. However, there still remains a great deal of uncertainty as to how the leaders of both nations will transform the rhetoric of ‘enhanced and genuine cooperation’ into practice? It will be interesting to see how Ghani’s approach towards Pakistan will differ from that of Karzai’s. And, whether he too will face the same, or perhaps different, challenges from Pakistan in the years ahead of his presidency.