This article was originally published on October 7, 2015.
As a TV anchor, I'll readily admit that our electronic media neglects covering Pak-Afghan relations. Why? Because it will not bring in ratings.
This is also part of the reason why Pakistan’s biggest TV channels have few to no correspondents in Kabul or other cities in Afghanistan.
In fact, it is not even considered ‘newsworthy’ to report on our neighbour unless either of the two states (always better when both) indulge in a blame game on the security front.
I decided I would address this gap by visiting Kabul myself. I wanted to learn more about the perceptions of Afghan people. I also wanted to meet with politicians and social workers to understand the trust deficit between our two countries.
First impression: the Kabul International Airport looked like a US air base. I was immediately approached by a member of the airport staff who started conversing in Urdu; this put me instantly at ease. Unfortunately, this welcome was short-lived as I reached the security checkpoint.
I said I was Pakistani. They said I should remove my shoes. My luggage was carefully scrutinised. And there was a very, very long list of questions. This was repeated at all subsequent security checks.
And this was just the start. I stayed in Afghanistan for eight days. My time there consisted mostly of short interviews, off record and on record interactions, and some rather alarming exchanges with sources who requested anonymity, of course.
Each call that I made to coordinate my scheduled interviews carried an often hostile undertone.
‘…I am a Pakistani journalist.
No, I am not an ISI agent.
I am in Afghanistan for work.
I am a journalist…’
A specific hatred
The current mood in Kabul is quite anti-Pakistan, or to be more precise, anti-ISI. Most Afghans do not hate Pakistan per se, but the ISI, they staunchly believe, supports the Afghan Taliban and has vested interests in destabilising their country. While the ISI was berated by many, whenever I asked for specifics, I only got half-stories, hearsay and no evidence.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the government of Afghanistan blame Pakistan for almost every security dilemma.
Indian intelligence, on the other hand, has close relations with Afghan intelligence. I learn that being on good terms with the Indian embassy in Kabul can really help you gain the trust of the Afghan interior ministry.
On the condition of anonymity, a senior politician (a jihadi in the past) told me that the national unity government in Afghanistan did not understand the importance of 'good relations' with the ISI. He stressed that Afghanistan needed to prioritise its relations in the region, which just wasn't happening.
In his view, Pakistan was not handling the matter of talks very well either. What they are doing under the table must be stopped, he said cryptically, before adding that the NDS and the government did not trust him and that he openly admitted to being pro-Pakistan.
This politician told me about his private meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He said, “Ghani panics a lot,” and that the president could not bear pressure. He further said that the MOU between Afghan and Pakistani intelligence was not impacting the trust deficit between the ISI and the NDS. For him, the solution lay in the policies and decision-making power of the Afghan government; the frequent change in diplomatic and political inclinations was damaging to foreign policy.
The Afghan journalist
I met a few Afghan journalists who wanted to work in Islamabad, but security clearance procedures were proving too troublesome.
A journalist is considered an agent in both states.
Afghan TV channels do not have any bureaus in Islamabad, and proposals for their establishment are lying in the dust. Officials from the Afghan foreign ministry told me that they had thrice requested Pakistan’s Minister for Information, Pervaiz Rasheed that they wanted to work with Pakistan's state TV on positive image-building (an effort which could be extended to private channels), but they have yet to receive a response.
The journalist community in Kabul is of the view that the two countries should build better relations with each other. In their view, miscreants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are actively working to prevent this.
I was told that whenever journalists from Pakistan come to work here, they are harassed by the NDS. I believe Afghan journalists must face the same problem in Pakistan.
Security and military reasons aside, I discovered another dimension of Afghanistan's tilt towards India when I learned that over 150 Indian journalists are currently working in Afghanistan. You will hardly find any Pakistani journalists working on important stories.
With this kind of people-to-people contact, no wonder Afghans trust Indians. For my own security, I was suggested not to reveal my nationality while interacting with the local public, though I did not follow that advice.
The Afghan social worker
I also met Afghan women social activists, who wanted bold decisions from their government. They did not believe in enforced brotherhoods and wanted a globalised, progressive and modern Afghanistan. They did however think that a pro-Pakistan attitude was never useful to them and that Pakistan had actually used them.
Fatana Gilani is a famous social activist who has been working for women empowerment for 30 years. She runs more than 50 vocational institutes for women; empowering Afghan women through education.
She said, "I love the women of Pakistan. We share the same culture. We live so close. But what about the role of the Pakistani government? Why does Pakistan support Taliban? Who created the Taliban? My efforts for women will not stop, but at the same time, I cannot ignore the factors which hinder our progress. Pakistan should not support the Taliban."
I even got access to the Afghan Taliban, though it wasn't easy, as they avoid talking to women. The aged man spoke of the Islamic State, the threat it posed, and how Pakistan may resultantly lose its influence on strategic policy in the region.
When I spoke to Afghan government officials, they avoided the camera, and the reason was straightforward: “It won't be right to give an interview to a Pakistani journalist right now.” I got diplomatic (empty) answers to most of my questions.
For the Afghan government, a porous border is not the bone of contention; it is the alleged sanctuaries of Afghan Taliban in Pakistan which are unacceptable. My observation is that they have no solution for border management, and it’s not even a major issue for them.
Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former foreign minister and national security adviser to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, shared the same sentiments.
“Pakistan is interfering in the internal matters of Afghanistan,” he said, citing a serious concern regarding Afghan Taliban crossing over from Pakistan. The ex-foreign minister further said that he was aware of the operation being carried out by the armed forces of Pakistan, but he believed it was not against the terrorists who attack them.
I asked him if Pakistan was indeed stabbing Afghanistan in the back, how would he explain the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan? To this, he responded with surprising gratitude, thanking the Pakistani nation and the government for keeping and facilitating the refugees.
Take a look: Afghan refugees ‘all praise’ for Pakistan
Meanwhile, responding to Afghan allegations like the above, Pakistani ambassador in Kabul Ibrar Hussain was of the view that Pakistan cannot open so many fronts at the same time, as the country is already busy fighting the internal threat of terrorism in Pakistan.
Pakistan is committed for peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, he said, which is why various landmark projects funded by the Pakistan government, like a hospital (US$60 million) and a boys hostel/school (US$ 10 million), are underway.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are losing valuable time and energy in their altercations against each other. Ufortunately, all this is happening at a policy-making level, and the effect is trickling down to innocent citizens, which in turn fuels widespread suspicion and hatred.
To sum up my sojourn, I would say that the ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan are complex, but can be overcome with rationale rather than emotional responses based on the past. Those in Kabul, and those in Islamabad need to step outside of the bubbles they have decided to live in.