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Pakistan’s Afghan challenge

Updated December 10, 2015

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Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif receives Afghan President Ashraf Ghani upon his arrival at Nur Khan airbase. ─ AP
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif receives Afghan President Ashraf Ghani upon his arrival at Nur Khan airbase. ─ AP

IT was unimaginable just a couple of years ago — Pakistan hosting an international conference with high-level political delegations from across the region.

That alone is worth acknowledging and welcoming. Pakistan is surely moving on from the devastating security crisis that had crippled this country for nearly a decade.

That the conference is jointly hosted with Afghanistan and is part of the Istanbul Process that seeks to achieve peace and stability inside Afghanistan through regional cooperation was an even more positive sign.

For too long Pakistan stood on the diplomatic sidelines while other countries tried to encourage dialogue with Afghanistan.

Also read: Afghanistan, Pakistan and US agree on resumption of peace process

Given all that Pakistan has at stake, it is surely right that it lead regional efforts on peace and stability in Afghanistan rather than simply react to others’ attempts. Brightening the picture further was the unprecedented gesture made by the Pakistani political and military leadership in personally receiving Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Nur Khan Air Base.

That show of unity sent a positive signal on two fronts: internally, that the political and military leadership is working together on Afghanistan; externally, that Pakistan wants to sustain and improve ties with Mr Ghani’s government.

For all the diplomatic show and pomp, however, there remain some fundamental challenges. Rather than being effusive, the Afghan president was direct in his comments when it came to Pakistan.

Not only did he refer to historical Afghan suspicions regarding Pakistani intentions, he also spoke of Afghanistan hosting “350,000 to 500,000 Pakistan refugees” in a nod to the civilian populations displaced by military operations in Fata.

The reference to Pakistan refugees will be interpreted as a rebuke to Pakistan, where there have been persistent demands for the forced repatriation of Afghan refugees.

It also shows how far apart the two countries can be on fundamental issues: few Pakistanis calling for the repatriation of Afghan refugees seem to be aware of Afghan sentiments on that issue or indeed of Afghan views generally.

But that challenge runs both ways. Some of the rhetoric emanating from Afghanistan on Pakistan in recent times has been unfortunate and needs to be reined in. As the Hamid Karzai era proved, harsh rhetoric from the Afghan side can cause all manner of unintended consequences.

On its part, Pakistan needs to go beyond a show of goodwill and graciousness as hosts.

Mr Ghani continues to take political risks at home in order to keep the door open to dialogue with Pakistan. Perhaps this is because the Afghan president realises he has no other option, if peace and stability are to be really pursued. But it is a very real opportunity for Pakistan. What remains confusing is the situation with the Afghan Taliban.

Has internal discord made pushing for peace talks immediately more difficult? If so, perhaps other confidence-building measures can be considered, for example, addressing Afghan complaints of Pakistan-based violence inside Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2015