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The knotty trio: Pakistan-Afghanistan-America

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The inaugural meeting of the Pak-Afghan Joint Technical Working Group was held in Kabul on July 26 under a recently set-up consultation mechanism for coordination on border management and related security “to discuss issues related to border security and joint fight against terrorism on both sides of the Durand Line,” said a brief statement issued by the Afghan defence ministry. During another meeting between senior military officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States at the Afghan Defence Ministry in Kabul, issues pertaining to Da’ish were discussed. “The Afghan DGMO shared details of the measures by the Afghan government to eliminate Da’ish and requested the Pakistani army should take similar action against Da’ish,” read the Pashto and Dari-language statements.

Later, during another bilateral meeting between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Afghan DGMO complained about the gate Islamabad is building on its side of the Torkham border—named as Bab-e-Pakistan. “The Afghan DGMO showed concerns at the Pakistani firing on the Afghan side and construction of the military installations on the Durand Line,” the statement said adding, “Pakistan was told that the construction is being made without consultation of the Afghan government.” During this series of meetings, Afghan side did not go beyond restating the previously known position; hence no forward movement.

The Afghan government has not responded positively to the border management proposition despite several interactions between the two countries at the highest level; and between their intelligence outfits on intelligence sharing and commitment not to allow their respective territories to be used for attacks across the border. Nevertheless, border management talks in Kabul were the first serious interaction between Kabul, Islamabad and NATO since the breakdown of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) and exchange of fire at Torkham.

Two words —Duran Line—represent a too powerful fault line between the two countries. On India’s behest all governments of Afghanistan have been drumming up the issue, notwithstanding that from 1893 till August 14, 1947, Afghanistan never raised a voice and accepted it as international border. Pakistan’s persistent stance on the Durand Line has been that it is a valid international border, recognized and confirmed by Afghanistan on several occasions. Treaty was inked in Afghanistan and was further ratified in three subsequent pacts, last being in 1921, this negates the usual Afghan assertion that it was a forced treaty. And, even if it was a forced treaty, the time for reaction was during the Raj days and not after that. Pakistan’s position has universal acceptance as legitimate stance.

Haroon Chakhansuri, President Ghani’s spokesman, said, on July 21, that the QCG has no plans to meet again anytime soon. A senior Pakistani security official also said, “The peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul are not likely to be resumed soon; neither the Taliban nor Afghan government are interested in reviving” the talks.

In this backdrop, Senator John McCain’s article carried by “Financial Times” on July 26, makes an interesting read. It amplifies the dynamics of third party’s interest in keeping Pakistan-Afghanistan relations on a perpetual status of “low intensity conflict”. “For too long, the US has viewed the bilateral relationship only through the prism of Afghanistan. To achieve real progress, the US must make clear its enduring commitment to Pakistan’s stability and economic growth”. And “For its part, Pakistan must take on and eliminate havens for terrorist groups… The sooner the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan get down to the business of fighting their common terrorist enemies together, no matter where they hide, the better off the nations, the region and the world will be.”

On the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum Ministerial Meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry assured Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz that United States is ready to improve and expand its multidimensional partnership with Pakistan. Both exchanged views on the regional situation with special reference to Afghanistan and agreed on the importance of promoting the Afghan-led reconciliation process. Kerry appreciated Pakistan’s determined efforts to eliminate terrorist groups in Pakistan’s tribal belt with considerable success. “I would like to visit Pakistan in the near future to review bilateral cooperation and discuss regional issues,” he said. These initiatives are coming when Kabul is under renewed attacks; not just from the Taliban, but now also from Daesh.

However, the lo-point at which these triangular relations have dipped coupled with uncertainty over the outcome of the US presidential election, Kerry has limited levers at his disposal. Afghanistan, which was once portrayed as President Obama’s good war, is now his forgotten war; and hence the tripartite relationship is in disarray.

On July 23, a suicide attack killed more than 85 people and wounded more than 200 during a peaceful protest march by Shia Hazaras in Kabul; Daesh promptly claimed the responsibility. Pakistan, too, stands to lose a lot if Daesh strengthens its hold in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif telephoned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and assured him of Pakistan’s continued cooperation in fighting common enemy of terrorism.

In a recent TV interview, President Ashraf Ghani emphasized the historic bonds between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the need for both countries to work together to fight terrorism. But, in the same breath, he asserted that state-to-state relations with Pakistan were a bigger challenge for Afghanistan than the existence of terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. President Ghani said that he could provide the addresses of the Taliban leaders in Quetta. He asserted that Pakistan provides sanctuaries to terrorists and trains them.  “We cannot understand when Pakistan says it will not allow a group of terrorists to amend its constitution, army act and prepares a National Action Plan against them….[and] Simultaneously, Pakistan tolerates another group which attempts to undermine the government and bring horror, death and destruction to Afghanistan,” Ghani said.

In response to a question that the leader of Pakistani Taliban Mullah Fazlullah has sanctuaries in Afghanistan, President Ghani said Afghan forces have bombed Mullah Fazlullah, eleven times along with attacks on his close aides.  “Can you show me a single operation against the Haqqani network…Mansoor traveled on a Pakistani passport out of Karachi, does Fazlullah travel on an Afghan passport out of Kabul,” asked Ghani.

Ghani also presented a three-point formula which according to his estimation could help improve relations between the two countries and fight terrorism. He suggested that Pakistan must go after declared terrorist groups to win Afghanistan’s trust; we should act on the quadrilateral process regarding reconcilable; and irreconcilable groups and those who reject peace talks should be evacuated from Pakistani soil. All three points ask unilateral actions by Pakistan—without any reciprocity from Afghan side.

When Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Afghan government was formally requested to take care of the border so that TTP operatives and their leadership could not escape to Afghanistan. Expected level of cooperation never materialized, with the result that many TTP leaders crossed over to Afghanistan and have been executing terrorist acts within Pakistan. Also, there have been substantiated reports that the Afghan intelligence DNS and Indian RAW have been supporting the TTP in carrying out terrorist violence in Pakistan. The TTP deputy leader, Latifullah Mehsud, who was caught by the Nato forces in Afghanistan in October 2013 while he was returning after a meeting with high-level Afghan functionaries confessed the nexus between the two intelligence agencies and their support to the TTP.

Pakistan on its part has taken a number of steps to prove its sincerity of purpose and commitment to promote the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan and tackle the scourge of terrorism. Most of the groups fighting in Afghanistan are indigenous Afghan entities. Pakistan needs peace in Afghanistan more than any other stakeholder. Solution to the Afghan conundrum lies in settlement through dialogue.

The Nation August 01, 2016, under the caption: “A knotty trio”.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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