As Pakistan welcomes Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, on his visit to the country for the first time in over a decade, the region finds itself at a point of inflection. Intra-Afghan negotiations have commenced, raising guarded hopes for an end to 19 years of unrelenting conflict. Save for a few spoilers, the international community has rallied behind Pakistan’s long standing conviction that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and that dialogue and reconciliation offer the only way forward.
This conviction and its internalisation by the world community have produced outcomes that were unthinkable even a few years ago. Therefore today, despite the continuing challenges and obstacles to peace, a consensual blueprint for the way forward exists, that can sooner, rather than later, deliver the stability that has eluded Afghanistan for long.
Vicissitudes in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations have through the years mirrored the instability in their common neighbourhood. With high levels of violence, proliferation of non-state actors, acting often at the behest of outside powers, illicit cross-border activities, ungoverned spaces, permeable borders, and large displaced populations, friendship between the two countries has often been hostage to the protracted turmoil.
Mistrust, grievances and misgivings abound, despite a strong realisation that Pakistan and Afghanistan are essential to each other’s survival and prosperity; that geography has bound them into an inseparable embrace, and that their destinies intersect in myriad ways.
Admittedly, both countries have in the past, advertently or inadvertently, stumbled onto the minefield of geopolitics and gotten hurt. Both are grappling with the daunting challenges of development. History bears ample testimony to how insecurity in one has invariably ricocheted to cause instability in the other, thereby undermining development prospects of both. This is one manifestation of the deep and organic connect between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also signifies how this linkage is central to the current state of affairs and future prospects for the region.
As Afghan leaders get down to the onerous, yet essential task of ironing out a comprehensive political settlement, and Pakistan continues to assist as part of a shared responsibility, this is an opportune moment to chart out the blueprint of a future equation, more attuned to the needs of the two nations, and the realities on the ground, rather than the agendas of distant capitals. This blueprint must learn from and take into account the abundant lessons of the past 40 years.
Every relationship must pivot to some principles. To allay apprehensions and dissipate misgivings, it is important that these principles are continually reaffirmed, and then followed in letter and spirit. The foundational principle for any future partnership must be acceptance of the self-evident truth that Pakistan and Afghanistan are two sovereign, independent nations having reciprocal rights and obligations that must deal with one another on the footing of equality, non-interference and common benefit. Harbouring self-defeating, irredentist or interventionist ambitions by either country would prove, as it has in the past, disingenuous and eventually counter-productive. Upon this fundamental premise must be built the edifice of elaborate cooperation to extend to one another mutual and reciprocal support to sustain common security.
Economic interdependency exerts a tremendous gravitational pull. The two nations are already among each other’s largest trading partners. Their geographies certainly complement one another. Pakistan gives Afghanistan a foothold to the sea, and Afghanistan accords Pakistan reach to Central Asia. The dream of establishing and operating trans-regional corridors of transport and energy has often been frustrated by competing regional and extra-regional interests, as well as protracted disputes in South Asia. This must not prevent the two countries from utilising practicable avenues, including the Belt and Road Initiative, and its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. With Gwadar fast coming up as a transit hub, Afghanistan’s maritime accessibility options are set to multiply manifold.
Other low-hanging fruit can also be pursued to the benefit of the two economies. Pakistan and Afghanistan could promote bilateral investments by extending national treatment and according special incentives to investors. Businesses could be facilitated in establishing outlets. Pakistan could assist Afghan authorities in revenue generation and expanding and streamlining the revenue stream. It is not difficult to envision a future Pakistan-Afghanistan Customs Union, and Common Market, that acts as a catalyst for prosperity across the length and breadth of both countries.
Complementing the trade and investment relationship must be a robust framework for licit population movements. Return of peace and stability in Afghanistan must include as a principle, a well-resourced, dignified, and voluntary return of Afghan refugees. This must follow then, the institution of policies whereby nationals of the two countries are able to easily and more freely access each other’s job markets, live and work in the two countries and travel seamlessly for business, leisure, health and education on the basis of a more liberal and streamlined visa regime.
The momentum of history is unmistakably pushing the two countries into a closer orbit. Approaching the situation with a clear and pragmatic vision, coherent thought and action, cognition of history and a consistent application of principle will help both countries redeem the lost years, and extricate themselves from the tragic cycle of death, destruction and violence that has consumed them for decades.