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Is the ice breaking with Kabul?

Updated October 12, 2017

The meeting between Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Bajwa and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani over a week ago seemed to have gone off well and hopes were raised that perhaps the ice between both countries might be breaking. One indicator of this was a reduction in the exchange of hostile rhetoric, which has held to date. But where do things go from here?

At one level, if the two countries are not gnashing their teeth at each other, it is indeed a positive. But at some point the absence of hostile rhetoric must lead to active measures designed to promote contacts and initiate dialogue on important sticking points, and an opportunity in that direction has just been missed. That opportunity came when a high-level review of the Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement was due. Representatives from both countries could have sat down and talked about the impediments that the transit trade was facing, and looked for ways to smooth things out.

Instead, a message came from Kabul, via Pakistan’s high commission there, that the Afghan side was not interested in meeting unless India was made part of the talks. There ended the affair, since transit trade accords are usually bilateral affairs and third countries do not join the talks.

The talks on transit trade have been held up for a number of years now. Since a high-level meeting early in the days of the present government, led by Ishaq Dar, Afghanistan has dug in its heels and insisted on Indian participation, causing all subsequent talks to be postponed. The forum where the talks are supposed to take place is the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Coordination Authority, an important part of the overall bilateral transit trade framework.

A few preliminary meetings have been held over the years, but each time they moved towards initiating a dialogue at the ministerial level, a missive has arrived from Afghanistan asking for a postponement till a decision was reached on Indian participation. The last such missive arrived after the Bajwa-Ghani meeting in Kabul and, at least as far as transit trade is concerned, the ice here had yet to break.

The dwindling trade relationship with Afghanistan shows the absence of rationality.

It is important to keep in mind that the transit trade accord benefits Afghanistan far more than it does Pakistan. For the latter, it is little more than a diplomatic tool through which to engage and talk with a neighbour with whom ties are frayed. So receiving a request for postponement of the talks on grounds as irrational as these is puzzling indeed.

Two things lie behind the impasse. First, a growing Indian presence in Afghanistan means increasing Indian influence over Afghan policymakers and the positions they are taking in their interactions with their counterparts in various bilateral and multilateral forums. Second, a growing part of Afghanistan’s transit trade is being routed through the Iranian port of Chabahar, almost $1.2 billion in the past couple of years by the estimates of Pakistani businessmen with important stakes in the transit trade.

Beyond transit trade, the total volume of exports from Pakistan to Afghanistan is also shrinking markedly, coming down from its high point of $2.4bn in 2011 to $1.43bn by 2016. In the first two months of the ongoing fiscal year, it has come in at $213.47 million, which if projected forward for the fiscal year as a whole means it will come in around $1bn by year’s end. This steady choking of the trade relationship — whether transit or bilateral trade — has important ramifications for the relationship between both countries because it is mutual economic ties that form the bedrock of a lasting peace between neighbours.

Now we wait to see how the authorities in Kabul will approach other economic engagements that await cooperation. The Central Asia-South Asia power transmission line is one, as is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Casa is a bit more advanced, while Tapi still has a long way to go, but both projects help tie the region together in mutually beneficial cooperation that it would be foolish to forego on the basis of geopolitical grievances.

The dwindling trade relationship with Afghanistan, especially in light of the country’s hardening of its position without regard to its own interests, shows the absence of rationality at play between both countries. There is little that Pakistan can do to change minds in Kabul, except to wait patiently for better sense to prevail or new faces to arrive.

The absence of hostile rhetoric is only meaningful if it is accompanied with the presence of rationality in actions on the ground. Pakistan has shown its flagrant disregard towards its own regional interests by putting geopolitics ahead of economics in forging its ties with its neighbours. But that folly is being reciprocated in kind from Afghanistan now, putting both countries in a cycle of mutual recrimination that must be broken.

If the ice has indeed broken following the army chief’s visit, the review meetings of the trade coordination forum ought to be scheduled at the earliest as a signal that matters should now advance beyond words. In the absence of such a signal, whether connected with trade or something else, the breaking of the ice itself appears as little more than rhetoric itself.

No country benefits by putting the interests of another country ahead of its own in the formulation of its foreign policy. Our neighbours in Afghanistan have many legitimate grievances against Pakistan, especially in the inability of the latter to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, or to curb cross-border attacks. But both parties need to ask themselves whether they are serious about moving forward in engaging each other, and if the answer is yes, then the least they can do is to put their own economic interests in the driving seat and move towards each other with small steps.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2017