PAKISTAN has been making almost heroic efforts over the last few months to put its relations with Afghanistan on an even keel and make a vital contribution to the reconciliation process that the Afghan government ostensibly wishes to move forward.
Given these efforts, the recent incidents on the Pak-Afghan border involving the beating up by Afghan security personnel of 29 Pakistanis returning to their workplace in Afghanistan has come as an unpleasant shock.
It is of course possible that the Afghan security guards were acting on behalf of the Afghan employer who wanted to avoid having to pay the salary arrears and benefits the Pakistanis were demanding. This would be no more than the misuse of official power at a subordinate level that unfortunately is common throughout our region and of which we have seen numerous examples in the Gulf countries.
It invited the sort of retaliation that was to be expected — relatives of the aggrieved workers beat up some 30 Afghans who probably had no link to the offending security personnel and which did little to improve relations between the two countries at a people-to-people level.
The second incident in which two Pakistani truck drivers were again beaten up seems to suggest that despite the protest Pakistan lodged and despite the consequent closure of the border by the Pakistan authorities for six hours the Afghan government took no steps to prevent the recurrence of such incidents at the Torkham border.
The subsequent closure of the border for two days did result in the Afghan ambassador promising that the incidents would be investigated and that the perpetrators punished but this too happened as far as one can see in a grudging manner.
In reporting on the meeting between the Afghan ambassador and the special secretary in Pakistan’s foreign office the slant given was that the fault was on Pakistan’s side, with quotes from Afghan legislators who called upon their government to take up the serious matter of the tearing of Afghan passports but ignored altogether the beating up of the Pakistani workers that had triggered the first border closure. Reporting of this nature will certainly create further ill will.
Why has this happened at this time when the Afghan government has acknowledged, as is evident from the “road map” presented by Salahuddin Rabbani, that Afghanistan needs Pakistan’s cooperation to advance the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” reconciliation process? Are there people in Kabul who want to sabotage the slow rebuilding of trust between the two countries and bring to an end Pakistan’s efforts to advance the reconciliation process?
Perhaps this is overly dramatic. Perhaps one should dismiss these incidents as no more than irresponsible behaviour by low-level officials and the biased reporting in the Afghan media as no more than chauvinism.
It does seem to me, however, that Pakistan has been constantly on the defensive in terms of how we treat provocative behaviour on the part of the Afghans.
Because the Afghans object, we have not been able to implement the biometric system to maintain a check on the enormous human traffic across our border.
This is incomprehensible because there can be no doubt that instituting such measures on our side of the border is our sovereign right. It is incomprehensible also because this would, in some measure, address the Afghan allegations that the Afghan Taliban use Pakistan as a sanctuary.
We have repeatedly proposed both to the Afghans and to the international community that the Afghan refugee camps on our side of the border should be shifted to the Afghan side even while logistic support could continue to be provided from Pakistan. Both the Afghans and the international community in the shape of the UNHCR have rejected this proposal and we have quietly accepted this rejection.
This too is incomprehensible since the UNHCR knows full well the deleterious effect the residents in these camps have on the social fabric of Pakistan. It is incomprehensible also because such a move would also address the Afghan allegation that these camps serve as rest and recreation centres for the Afghan Taliban.
The recent decision to extend the registration of Afghan refugees and allow them to stay for another six months has not elicited gratitude from the Afghans. Instead we have been criticised for not granting them a year’s extension. Now we have reached a point where the overwhelming majority of Afghan refugees boldly proclaim that they have no intention of going back and they will resist any effort to repatriate them.
The Afghan media and officials have been full of praise for the economic assistance that India has provided but there is nary a word of praise for the modest economic assistance that Pakistan has provided and more importantly no favourable mention of the fact that the millions of Afghan refugees we are currently hosting draw, at the minimum of a dollar a day, almost two billion dollars annually from the Pakistan economy. This far exceeds the level of assistance that any other country, with the exception of the US, provides to Afghanistan.
There are words of high praise for the scholarships that India provides but no mention of the much larger number of Afghans who are on scholarship in Pakistani institutes.
Our decision to allow the Afghans to channel their exports to India through Wagah has led not to appreciation but to a demand that Pakistan should somehow arrange for the Afghan trucks engaged in this trade to have a cargo to carry back. We, it is implied, are the villains of the piece because otherwise trade with India would be the panacea for all Afghanistan’s problems.
Have we tolerated all this because we have been consumed with guilt about our mistaken Afghan policies? Or is it because we are a soft state? Or is it because we entertain the mistaken belief that our destinies are so inextricably linked with those of Afghanistan that we must take on the chin everything that the Afghans choose to dish out? Whatever the past reasoning we must now ensure that our relations are placed on a more even plane and the rules of interstate conduct between two independent sovereign states are observed.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.