THE temperatures in Kabul may have dropped to below zero but its official residents are trying hard to bring some warmth in their relationship with Pakistan. Indeed, since the visit of Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to Kabul earlier this year, Afghan government’s representatives seem to be in a mood for reconciliation.
Happy to meet Pakistani journalists, officials are welcoming and generous in their opening remarks in what appears to be a besieged city at first glance. Thick walls, barbed wire and security guards in bulletproof vests are ubiquitous. Embassies, hotels, government buildings are hidden behind thick walls and armoured vehicles are a common sight. Security guards outside imposing buildings are usually protected by bulletproof vests and the security processes are not as lackadaisical as in Pakistan.
But past the security checks, a warm welcome awaits the visitors. From appreciation for Pakistani hospitality for Afghans since the Soviet invasion to the present; to assertions about the geographical and cultural links between the two countries, the officials strike all the right notes.
A dinner hosted by the foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani is a case in point. Having invited over the visiting Pakistani journalists, the gracious minister provided dinner as well as a frank and candid discussion lasting nearly three hours. He spoke warmly of his youth spent in Pakistan, answered the barrage of questions in his faultless Urdu and among the wide variety of dishes on his dinner table was Biryani — in case his guests preferred it to the Kabuli pulao.
Even Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive, took time out for a lengthy discussion.
However, this geniality doesn’t last too long — on either side of the border. Once the conversations move beyond officialese, the grievances come pouring out.
It’s not long before Afghan officials’ talk of inseparable brothers and shared history is replaced by references to violence, sanctuaries, Haqqanis and broken promises. Pakistan Foreign Office officials, on the other hand, speak of the harsh rhetoric of Afghan leaders and diplomats and how Kabul is now forwarding the Indian agenda.
The recent breakthrough resulting from the visit of Gen Bajwa to Kabul in October is not without lack of clarity over what was agreed upon.
Perhaps the most public of the promises made by the general in Kabul was that of the fatwa by Pakistani ulema declaring an attack in Afghanistan un-Islamic. It was agreed upon mutually and as a result, most Afghan officials await it anxiously. “It should come by January hopefully,” said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One Afghan official said that it was supposed to be finalised within a month.
There is little news in Pakistan of the progress made on the issue in the media — however, government officials say that the matter is moving forward at a reasonable pace.
However, what Kabul is not happy about is transit trade and the mutually verifiable operations it claims Islamabad agreed to. The mutually verifiable operations, according to what officials explain, appear to be operations to determine or identify the location and presence of militants, which Kabul would prefer be carried out with Afghan, American, Chinese and Pakistani officials on both sides of the border. Afghan officials claim that Pakistan has backtracked from this promise.
Ask the Foreign Office officials and they argue that Islamabad only agreed to intelligence sharing — Pakistan will act upon information provided by Kabul to the extent of even taking Afghan officials to inspect the area once it has been cleared.
Islamabad also claims that the agreement with Kabul during the COAS’s visit included the following points: “Securing the border, the return of the refugees, elimination of safe havens and a stop to attacks from Afghanistan on Pakistani soil,” says an FO official. “On the day that the Afghans were visiting there was an attack in Peshawar and we have proof that the handlers were based in Afghanistan. We handed the evidence over to the Afghan DGMO.”
Transit trade, too, is another sticking point. Every Afghan brings it up as — leaving unsaid that they see it as a sign of Islamabad’s lack of cooperation. But for Islamabad, this is not an issue to be discussed with Afghanistan but a bilateral issue between Islamabad and New Delhi.
The claim that “The chief of army staff agreed that trucks should go to Attari [instead of only Wagah], ” is countered by the Foreign Office in Islamabad which points out that the distance from Wagah to Attari is an issue covered by Indo-Pak bilateral relations and commerce. “And India refuses to talk about anything but terrorism.”
Short-term official memory on each side it seems is at odds with what the other remembers. The result is a war of words about who promised what and who didn’t deliver in private while officially waxing lyrical about shared geographies and histories.
However, there is no doubt that beyond the lengthy list of expectations and promises which range from ending sanctuaries to trade to refugees, Pak-Afghan relations will in the end be determined largely by the levels of violence in Afghanistan. As one official in Kabul put it, “We don’t even expect Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table; just an end to the help for the Afghan Taliban carrying out attacks.”
This focus on attacks is easier to understand given the security situation in Kabul.
It’s hard to escape conversations about security in the Afghan capital. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which had hosted the journalists from Pakistan, had recently returned to the Afghan capital because along with all the other diplomatic staff from Germany, it had left the city after the bombing in May, halting all its activities. The German embassy premises is now an empty shell of a building, glimpses of which we caught while being driven around the city in armoured cars and a police convoy.
Any excursions beyond the hotel were allowed only with this elaborate security cover, which included blocking all traffic movement nearby so that the destination was reached quickly. Such precautions may ensure safety but are exhausting for the ordinary citizens of Kabul. As a host pointed out, “Keep in mind that there are perhaps a 100 such convoys going around Kabul all day long, blocking traffic, to ensure swift movement as well as security.”
As a result, no one even bats an eyelid at the announcement that someone or the other is late because he or she is “stuck in traffic”.
Senior diplomats even don bulletproof vests before getting into cars.
No wonder then that all other issues remain secondary. The state of affairs within the unity government and relations between president Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah; parliamentary elections which were supposed to have taken place three years ago; presidential elections scheduled for next year among the uncertainty that they will be held; corruption and governance; even the presence of Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the militant Islamic State group, – as with any country and society, Afghanistan too has its share of issues, but they all pale in comparison with the focus on the militant attacks.
And unfortunately, where violence is concerned, for Kabul and for the rest of the international community, Pakistan is in the dock. And this is a trial that is not going to end soon.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2017