Analysis: Ghani visit — the prose of inter-state relations

Published November 19, 2014
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shake hands at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad on November 15, 2014. - AFP/File
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shake hands at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad on November 15, 2014. - AFP/File

Sunny but slightly nippy, it was just the perfect day for a 15-over cricket match at Islamabad’s Margalla Cricket Ground which lies in the foot of the hills across from the city’s upscale F-6 sector. I was headed to the ground, halfway through the match because it was a contest between Afghanistan and Pakistan ‘A’ teams. The Chief Guest was the visiting President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. The host, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

By the time I reached the venue, Afghanistan had played its innings and made an impressive 154 runs. The players were taking a break and the atmosphere was festive with the DJ playing Pashtu and Urdu songs alternately. The bulk of the 100-member delegation with President Ghani was already at the venue, as were some members of Mr Sharif’s cabinet and other Pakistani officials.

The Afghan players looked charged while the Pakistani side seemed to be taking the match somewhat lightly. I wondered if the mood on the two sides also reflected the approach to the bigger, more serious and not least deadly, game being played in the background, the reason for President Ghani’s presence in Pakistan.

So, while I soaked up the rays on that sunny day, I was thinking about the bigger game. President Ghani looked pleased as he arrived, with a few overs to go. But while appearances are important, they can also be deceptive.

My sources had earlier told me that the visit had gone well. In perhaps the most important leg of his Pakistan sojourn, Ghani had gone to Rawalpindi to the inner sanctum of General Headquarters, a rare stop by a head of state. There, he was briefed on the security situation, the opportunities and the challenges. Ghani said on the occasion that “Afghanistan wants to bolster security and defence ties with Pakistan, including co-operation in training and border management.” He was accompanied by Afghan Defence Minister General Bismillah Muhammadi, Afghan Chief of General Staff General Sher Muhammad Karimi and other senior Afghan security officials.

Pakistani defence sources say that the two sides understand that dealing with threats requires a joint mechanism. The DG-ISPR, Maj.-Gen Asim Bajwa, tweeted after the meeting: “Afghan President in Pak: Security, stability a shared goal. Our security inextricably linked. Long term partnership, border Coord mechanism in focus.”

But there’s more. The request for arms supplies from India, which former President Hamid Karzai was so interested in getting, is all but dead. Ghani, unlike Karzai, is deeply interested in pursuing the Kabul bank fraud case. Since the fraud implicates many of Karzai’s former coalition associates, Ghani is likely to use it to punish some and leverage the findings in other cases. It provides him a great tool to use in complex negotiations that Afghans are known for. Ghani is also aware of China’s interest in Afghanistan and has been described by President Xi Jinping during Ghani’s visit there after assumption of office as an “old friend”.

At the same time Ghani understands that Pakistan remains the key to a stable Afghanistan. This dovetails with the seriousness with which he wants to reach out to the various Taliban factions for a political settlement. In this he expects that Pakistan will facilitate him while understanding that the issue is complex and neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan has any direct lines to the multiple Taliban factions. This is exactly what National Security and Foreign Affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz told the BBC in an interview that got reported out of context. What is possible and what has been decided on is a clear appreciation of what can be done singly and in tandem to address the threat that is domiciled on both sides of the border.

A lot will also depend on how domestic politics unfolds in Kabul. While Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have ironed out their differences and managed to innovate the current arrangement, Ghani still has to put together a cabinet. The formation of that body will, again, depend on complex negotiations between Ghani and Abdullah.

Another important facet of the Ghani visit is an appreciation on both sides, but especially on the Afghan side, of the fact that bilateral relations between Islamabad and Kabul are more than about security.

This is not to argue that security is a lesser issue. Far from that. What it means is that security issues may not be allowed to upstage many of the other things that the two have to offer each other. Ghani’s visit was preceded by the visit to Pakistan of the Afghan Finance Minister, Umer Zakhelwal, who met with Ishaq Dar a day before Ghani landed at the Chaklala Airbase.

The two sides want the bilateral trade to increase from USD2.5 billion to USD5 billion in the next 2-3 years. They have also looked at irritants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, which was signed in Oct 2010.

The irony is that if undocumented trade, especially smuggling, were to be factored in, the volume of trade between the two countries, according to some guesstimates, is already upwards of USD5 billion! That is a net loss of more than USD2 billion trade to the two sides already.

Other agreements include greater people-to-people contact, border management, scholarships for Afghan students etcetera.

Overall, the visit was a success. Even so, complacency is never a virtue in inter-state relations and especially in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan that have had relations fraught with distrust.

It is good to proceed apace without keeping security upfront and integrated with other facets of the relations but it is equally important to ensure that steps are taken to enhance security in order for the rest to become more meaningful. Atmospherics are akin to the charm of poetry but in the end, relations depend on hardnosed prose that can also convince.

The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs, at Capital TV and a Visiting Fellow at SDPI. He tweets @ejazhaider

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