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Determination needed to improve Pakistani-Afghan relations

The latest meeting aimed at fence-mending between Afghan and Pakistani officials in Islamabad earlier this month raised expectations, but no breakthrough could be achieved. This was somewhat familiar, as previous attempts at resolving disputes and improving relations have come to nothing.
Unlike in the past, no dates for the next meeting of the joint Pakistani-Afghan working group were announced this time. This could be an indication that the two sides have come to the conclusion that they are unlikely to break the stalemate, even if they meet again and again. However, refusing to meet cannot be a solution to any problem. Before long, they will realize that they have to make a new and more determined effort to improve relations.
There are quite a few similar objectives that could be explored further to serve as an icebreaker. The war against terrorism is theoretically a common objective for Islamabad and Kabul, as both have suffered incalculable losses at the hands of terrorists; but first they have to first agree as to which groups are terrorists and need to be tackled jointly. Though they are convinced that Daesh is a threat to their security, no practical steps have been taken to coordinate actions against this common enemy.
Besides, Kabul continues to believe that Islamabad is pursuing the policy of “good” and “bad” terrorists, saying it has been fighting those threatening Pakistan and sparing the ones undertaking attacks in Afghanistan and other countries. Kabul has persistently accused Islamabad of harboring the leadership of the Afghan Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network. Islamabad has not only denied the accusations, but pointed to the presence of mostly Pakistani militants using Afghanistan’s territory to launch attacks in Pakistan.
With Afghanistan and the US on one side, along with India, Pakistan has to contend with mounting pressures and multiple challenges as it tries to protect its interests in the region.
Rahimullah Yusufzai
Bilateral trade has benefited both countries over the years due to the low transportation costs, and this was the reason Pakistan’s exports to its neighbor reached a record $2.4 billion in 2012, before plummeting to less than $1 billion due to poor relations, the frequent closures of border crossings and the drawdown of US-led forces in Afghanistan, which had received the bulk of their supplies from Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s transit trade via Karachi seaport and the Pakistani overland route had been on the rise, but is now declining. It will be reduced further when the “Indian-funded” Chabahar Port in Iran becomes fully operational for Afghan exports and imports, bypassing Pakistan. It is in Islamabad’s interest to initiate corrective measures to facilitate trade linkages, both bilateral and transit, with Afghanistan as this has always been overwhelmingly in Pakistan’s favor.
At the recent Munich Security Conference, and previously at the US-convened meeting of senior military leaders from Central and South Asian nations in Kabul in mid-February, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa categorically stated there are no militant groups with camps in Pakistan, as repeated military operations have indiscriminately targeted and defeated all militants.
In fact, Gen. Bajwa put the onus of responsibility on the Afghan government and its supporters, such as the US, by asking it to reciprocate the anti-terror actions undertaken by Pakistan within its territory. In Islamabad’s view, these actions ought to include operations against Afghanistan-based militants threatening Pakistan, effective border management and security coordination, and the return of the estimated 2.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan to their homeland. As this isn’t going to happen any time soon, the relations will remain largely uneasy and uncertain.
Afghanistan’s stance on the presence of Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network leaders in Pakistan has the full backing of the US. In fact, President Donald Trump’s new policy on Afghanistan and South Asia, made public by him last August, carried the same message as he warned Pakistan of dire consequences if it didn’t take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil. With Afghanistan and the US on one side, and with India actively part of this alliance, Pakistan has to contend with mounting pressures and multiple challenges as it tries to protect its interests in the region.
• Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1