Dealing with the Afghan Conundrum

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to Afghanistan is symbolic in many ways. The Afghan-US deadlock over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and the US’s refusal to halt drone strikes inside Pakistan seem the main drivers behind the prime minister’s visit. As we know, halting drone strikes is one of the conditions put forward by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for holding talks with the government of Pakistan. The killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud and the Iran-US nuclear deal are some of the factors that might have far reaching impact on Pak-Afghan relations. Traditionally, their relationship has been characterised by mutual mistrust and lack of confidence, with India always being a decisive factor in determining Pak-Afghan relations. Since 9/11, the US has also emerged as a key player in Afghan affairs and exerts influence on bilateral relations.

Being a neighbour, Pakistan gives paramount importance to its relations with Afghanistan as Pakistan’s peace and stability depend on Afghan peace and stability. The Afghan conflict, war on terror, drone strikes and counter-insurgency operations in FATA have destroyed the traditional social fabric of tribal society and Pakistan’s lack of institutional mechanism to integrate FATA into a mainstream political framework highlights future challenges for Pakistan’s policy makers.

The role of outside powers in Afghanistan has affected Pak-Afghan relations in particular and the regional security environment in general. Given the strategic implications of the security pact, the prime minister might have conveyed Pakistan’s concerns regarding Pakistan-specific clauses of the BSA in the post-2014 US drawdown. The PM has reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to support the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process and to facilitate the Afghan peace process, Pakistan has released a number of Afghan Taliban including Mullah Baradar, the influential Taliban leader.

Another important concern for Pakistan has been the Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which allows India training, equipping and capacity building programmes for the Afghan national security forces. Despite assurances from President Karzai that the strategic partnership is not directed against any country, Pakistan is concerned about the strategic dimensions of the agreement. Apparently, it seems a step towards local capacity building that has been much emphasised by India regarding its relations with Afghanistan but, given the troubled India-Pakistan relations, Indian involvement in the security sphere of Afghanistan increases Pakistan’s fear of being encircled by India.

Apart from strategic considerations, Afghanistan is significant in achieving regional connectivity and to enhance economic interdependence because it serves as a land bridge to reach landlocked Central Asian states that present huge trade and investment opportunities. Being a landlocked state, Afghanistan’s trade has been passing through Pakistan and has been regulated under the 1965 Afghan Transit Trade Agreement, which allowed transit to Afghan imports from all countries through the port of Karachi. The Afghan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) was signed in 2010 to regulate trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the grievances of the Afghan government over Pakistan’s transit policy has been the restrictions for overland trade with India. India was desirous to use Pakistan’s overland route to have trade relations with Afghanistan. Earlier, Pakistan made use of overland route by India conditional with the normalisation of relations with India and the resolution of outstanding disputes including Kashmir. However, later on, Pakistan allowed the use of the overland route from Torkham to Wagah for Afghan exports of fresh and dry fruit to India and endorsed the humanitarian and emergency consignments of Indian goods to Afghanistan through Karachi port.

India and Iran have a convergence of interests in Afghanistan. Iran also shares a border with Afghanistan and provides a land route to access Afghanistan and Central Asia. To materialise economic relations with Afghanistan and Central Asian Republic states, India, anxious to circumvent Pakistani territory, has been cooperating with Iran to develop a new port complex at Chahbahar on the coast of Iran. Chahbahar is strategically important for India as an outlet to the Indian Ocean, which will enhance Indian trade relations with Afghanistan via Iran by eliminating Indian dependence on Pakistan. India, taking advantage of a thaw in Iran’s relations with the West, has accelerated the upgrading of the project.

Pakistan and Afghanistan need to build trust and confidence because a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s best interest. Along with daunting challenges, Afghanistan also presents opportunities for Pakistan and other regional states, and the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan and India) gas pipeline project is one of them. It is a project to link energy rich Central Asia to energy deficit South Asia to transit gas from Turkmenistan to India and Pakistan to enable India and Pakistan to meet their growing energy needs.

The article was carried by Daily Times on December 6, 2013.

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