THE Pak-Afghan relationship, dogged by profound mistrust, has been a zero-sum game over the past 16 years. Efforts to normalise the increasingly rancorous ties have floundered on the rocks of scepticism and recriminations over cross-border terrorism.
A large number of people — mostly civilians — were killed and wounded in the latest exchange of heavy shelling across the Durand Line in the Chaman town of Balochistan. Though Pakistan had informed them in advance of census-taking activity in the area, Afghan forces resorted to unprovoked fire.
There was no justification for the ugly incident as the enumerators and the paramilitary personnel escorting them posed no security threat to the trigger-happy Afghan border police — a force that noticeably lacks professional skills and is rarely held accountable for deadly errors.
Kabul should know that trust is a two-way street.
As a consequence of the latest escalation, the border has once again been shut, blocking all movement of people and supplies to the landlocked country, including for US-led international troops. Several homes were destroyed in the gunbattle, which prompted each side to accuse the other of providing safe havens to militants.
Such is the tenuous nature of the Pak-Afghan state of play — the skirmish came on the heels of high-level visits by Pakistani parliamentarians, military commanders and intelligence agents to Kabul. Both sides put an optimistic face on the meetings, hailing their talks as productive. But these statements soon turned out to be routine rhetorical flourishes, devoid of substance and sincerity.
Kabul’s argument that the census team and security personnel had strayed into its territory and were counting Afghan citizens cuts no ice with Islamabad. Some Afghan officials, ignoring the fact that the problems originating in their country somehow spill over into Pakistan, went as far as to claim that terrorists were trying to enter Afghanistan in the garb of enumerators.
Pakistan may not be doing enough to deny the Afghan Taliban a safe haven on its soil, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani must also appreciate the reality that trust is a two-way street. His intransigence has upset peace proponents. Both sides need to cooperate on battling militancy to prevent a recurrence of such tensions. In the hope of paving the ground for a thaw, National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq extended Ghani an invitation to visit Islamabad. The president’s rejection is a grim reminder of the deep-seated animosity between the neighbours.
In the main, his rejectionist response stems from hard-to-meet conditions. One of his terms concerns the immediate handover of the perpetrators of attacks on the governor’s office in Kandahar, the army base in Balkh, the American University in Kabul and the Sardar Daud Hospital.
He has emphatically ruled out any substantive political engagement with Pakistan unless the elements involved in the devastating assaults are turned over to his administration. To him, the arrest and surrender of the attackers is child’s play. In reality, however, it is no cakewalk.
Ironically, Pakistan-related statements from even lowly Afghan officials are in a similar vein. In no mood for rapprochement, Afghan officialdom refuses to recognise the British-era border — a wild frontier whose management is a big headache — as an international border. They are virtually hiding behind the fig leaf of the Durand Line being a temporary boundary.
If the current climate of hostility persists, Pakistan would definitely think about fortifying the border once again to eliminate a source of constant consternation. This can heighten bilateral bitterness besides spelling humanitarian problems for many Afghans with relatives and businesses on this side.
After a series of deadly attacks blamed on Afghanistan-based fighters in February, Pakistan slammed shut all border crossings with the landlocked country for more than a month. Plans to fence the border will divide the communities straddling it and have a negative effect on trade and people-to-people contacts.
A dramatic turn of events in the past three weeks is demonstrative of the government’s loosening grip and the mounting problems for key world players to prop it up. The developments also underscored the need for a dispassionate review of the seemingly intractable war.
Much to Ghani’s frustration, the domestic security environment remains wobbly. His defence minister and chief of army staff, who were dismissed for the fatal security lapse in Mazar-i-Sharif, have now been rewarded with ambassadorial slots. In the ongoing war of attrition, his leadership has turned out to be a busted flush.
Given the Afghan Taliban’s resurgence and a spike in the militant Islamic State group’s violence, 2017 will be another tough year for him. The Afghan army, riven by corruption and desertions, is unlikely to withstand the militant onslaught. Just like the security establishment, the Ghani government has also failed to drain the swamp.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2017