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#4743, 18 November 2014

Dateline Islamabad

Burying the Past: A New Beginning for Pakistan and Afghanistan
Salma Malik
Assistant professor, Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University

The newly-elected President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, while addressing a joint press conference at the end of his two-day visit to Pakistan, said “We must overcome the past…we will not permit the past to destroy the future.” It was indeed a very optimistic and pragmatic message for interested and watchful audiences not only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but for all those keenly monitoring the transition Kabul is undergoing.

A three-pronged track that entails political, security and economic transition has already witnessed some progress on the political and security front, with the unity government finally coming into power after a months-long electoral impasse. On the security front, the signing of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) has provided a sense of certainty and laid to rest the speculations that there would be a complete troop withdrawal post 2014. Though US President Barack Obama had stated that 9800 troops would remain in Afghanistan from December 2014 till the 2016 complete withdrawal deadline, the final decision was dependent on the signing of the BSA. 

Pakistan had strived to stand by its pledge regarding non-intervention and non-interference in Afghan affairs, and would have whole-heartedly accepted and honoured whatever the election outcome. Yet, many considered Ashraf Ghani as a more favourable candidate, primarily due to his relatively apolitical stature and technocratic background. Now, with Ghani as the president and Abdullah Abdullah as the chief executive officer (CEO) of Afghanistan, the biggest political challenge Kabul faces is the successful power balance between the two. The entire success of Afghanistan’s internal as well as external relations hinges on this single factor. Any crack in this relationship will strengthen the negative forces that are ever on a watch to exploit such opportunities.

Correspondingly, if there is political instability in Kabul, a factor the US has and will try its level best to prevent and secure, it will impact the physical security and economic situation – a scenario that neither Kabul nor any state party linked with Afghanistan can afford, least of them being Pakistan. A stable, secure and peaceful Afghanistan is as much in Islamabad’s interest as militancy-free, secure Pakistan is in Kabul’s. 

The Afghan president’s visit to Pakistan was preceded by the Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif’s brief visit to Kabul, and Pakistani National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz’s day-long trip to Kabul, during which he extended Ghani an invitation to visit Pakistan. All three visits carried a similar tenor:  overcoming the trust deficit, building positive relations and a common vision for a strong, enduring and comprehensive partnership between the two counties. These are not mere words but the key to the future of stability and peace between the two countries the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai termed as conjoined twins.

While there was a lot of talk regarding improving relations, an important factor that cannot be ignored is the pressing need to enhance cooperation in areas of counter-terrorism and other security issues. Both countries have long accused each other of lack of cooperation vis-à-vis terrorism, cross-border sanctuaries for terrorists as well as on border management. The Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azab has been declared successful in flushing out militants from the troubled North Waziristan agency, as well as in making the space uninhabitable for elements such as the Haqqani Network, which even the US military grudgingly acknowledged. However, with the security situation still fluid inside Afghanistan and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), despite years of training, not yet strong enough to address these pressing challenges, unless there is a coordinated approach to tackle terrorism and militancy, both countries will be at a loss; and it is by no means a simple task, given the many stakes involved. 

With terror outfits now more adaptable and open to embracing emerging actors and trends such as the Islamic State whose ideology is more far lethal and destructive than all the previous non-state actors’, there is very little time to lose and the need is for reducing the incentive for such elements to gain physical and ideological space. Pakistan’s proposal to offer security and defence cooperation and training opportunities to Afghanistan have been received positively. As the two heads of governments together enjoyed Afghanistan win an exhibition cricket match, there also exists the realisation that better economic cooperation, joint ventures in energy and trade corridors and increased investment in infrastructural development leading to sustainable development and provides a viable alternative to conflict economy is the smart response to the poor governance indicators and the prolonging of conflict. For a prosperous and secure future, there is a need to not only overcome but also not revisit the past and work together to defeat the odds that are not only internal but have external sources as well. 

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