MERE acknowledgement, especially belated, of the existence of a problem will not necessarily move both countries in the direction of addressing the issue. But so dire have Pak-Afghan ties been in recent times that small improvements could augur bigger changes. On a visit to the US, Afghanistan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah was asked about the presence of TTP sanctuaries in his country and his response was one of refreshing candour. Admitting the existence of banned TTP elements on Afghan soil, the Afghan CEO blamed it on ungoverned spaces, so-called insecure areas, and not on any policy decision by the National Unity Government. It remains to be seen if the verbal candour on his part leads to actions against the TTP sanctuary problem in Afghanistan, but it does appear that the recent high-level diplomacy and military engagement between Pakistan and Afghanistan has helped improve the overall mood in the relationship. In particular, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s trip to Kabul seems to have helped the two sides positively reassess the relationship and perhaps create the space necessary for meaningful reciprocal actions. As ever, pragmatic engagement has proved to be more beneficial than rancour and threats.
For Pakistan, the challenge remains twofold: addressing the Pak-Afghan cross-border militancy problem on both sides; and helping restart an Afghan dialogue process that was halted by American indifference and Kabul’s hostility. Patience will necessarily be required, but there is no known or foreseeable alternative to a strategy of gradual trust-building and peaceful engagement. Since both sides have legitimate grievances, an atmosphere where each side can express its priorities and seek compromise and a middle ground can help break the impasse. But courage and boldness will also be required. Gen Bajwa’s direct approach and intensive diplomacy appear to be a good complement to the hard-line approach of the administration of US President Donald Trump on Afghanistan. If there is an area in which Pakistan should consider tweaking its approach, it is internally on the civil-military front. The outreach to Afghanistan has been almost wholly handled by the military and the civilian government appears to be merely rubber-stamping the security establishment’s preferences in forums such as the National Security Committee. A lopsided civil-military approach may limit the improvements that can be brought to Pak-Afghan ties, especially in civilian-led areas such as trade and people-to-people contacts.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2017