Pakistan and Afghanistan have been carrying a heavy burden history has left on their shoulders albeit the burden they are carrying does not weigh equal. Afghanistan, a country that shares the longest border with Pakistan, is carrying a burden that is much heavier than the one Pakistan carries. The two nations are locked in a chain they inherited from a past shaped by colonial rule in the subcontinent of India.
Today, more than any time, the relationship between these two neighbors is extremely shaky. Trust deficient between Islamabad and Kabul is at its peak. Just as the debatable argumentative remarks made by President Ghani and Prime Minister Khan in Uzbekistan, the public opinion about Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship in the two countries is a mirror that reflects the wrong policies of the two states.
Some Pakistani media portray the Taliban as a nationalist movement while the fact is that the Taliban never represented Afghanistan and nor they would be able to represent the diversified segments of Afghan society in the future. They neither have the capacity to emerge as a nationalist movement nor have the chance and popularity to win the hearts and minds of population—mainly urban centers, who have seen the worst kind of atrocities committed by the Taliban. In mid 1990s, the Taliban all of a sudden emerged out of chaos, coercion, and warlords’ rule. Afghan population who were fed up with the status quo at that time, favored the Taliban in the south, looking upon them as a peace restoring force on a peacekeeping mission. But expectations proved wrong as the Taliban militants gained more territory. The simple-styled mullahs who wanted to restore peace turned into a power-thirsty group who did every atrocity to govern people and keep their foreign patrons happy.
The Taliban insurgents are making an intensive push to take control over provincial capitals. They have launched a military campaign to capture the western Herat city while the group already controls two border ports in western Afghanistan. Clashes between the insurgents and Afghan security forces are underway in a district of Ghazni and parts of northern Afghanistan.
In 1990s Pakistan was the first country to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan—a regime that not only failed to bring peace in the country but changed it into a hub for al-Qaeda radicals and other Muslim militancy outfits.
Top Pakistani diplomats, civilian leadership, and military generals keep saying that Pakistan wishes to see a peaceful Afghanistan. Words and intention, no matter how honest they are, will not change the already soured relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. To stop the growing mistrust on the two sides and prove their words right, Pakistan can do two things at this stage: promote people-to-people contact and put pressure on the Taliban leadership to agree to a ceasefire.
Pakistan might not be able to use military force against the Taliban fighters on its soil, perhaps due to a number of reasons, but it can use tools to pressure the insurgents to agree to a power-sharing deal with the Afghan government. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and security apparatus can easily monitor and seize Taliban’s financial networks that collect and channel money to fuel the engine of the insurgency in parts of Afghanistan. Pakistan forces can monitor Taliban movement inside Pakistan and on the Afghan border.
Policymakers in Islamabad have committed many mistakes just as months ago Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Qureshi boldly acknowledged it. To change the course of the past and most importantly to sow the seed of a longstanding friendship the two nations need to rethink, correct mistakes, and adopt a new approach that can help bridge the gap and foster confidence between them.
There is a lot of misperception between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistani media, if not all of them, almost majority of them, see Afghanistan from the state point of view—which in the past was shaped through a lens of security prism. Independent journalists, think tanks, and academia from both countries can play a vital role in bridging the gap, removing misperception, and building confidence between the two nations.
Pakistani military generals and civilian leaders have repeatedly underlined that it is time to shift geo-strategic approach into a geo-economic strategy—but in reality, no practical step is taken to break the cycle of mistrust that is the biggest hindrance. Pak-Afghan relations will not move towards normalization unless honest actions are taken. Pakistani leadership should not simplify the status quo in Afghanistan for the purpose of promoting a one-sided narrative. Islamabad can take a couple of actions to put more pressure on the Taliban leadership to agree to a peaceful settlement, putting an end to violence.
The two nations would not be able to bridge the gap and reduce trust deficiency unless and until they deconstruct their past. The question why Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite having many things in common, have failed to develop a friendly relationship lies again in history. To repair the error of the past and prove goodwill, Pakistan needs to undertake genuine efforts to take a sincere confidence-building measure. As a short step to build confidence, the Pakistan government should officially condemn Taliban’s war against the Afghan national army that is built up of Afghan Muslims.
Bound by geography, the two countries need to review what wrongs politicians and policymakers did in the past that has now locked them in a hostile nexus— a nexus that continues to keep them apart, insecure and poor.
Solutions do not come easily—especially when relationship is over shadowed by a deep sense of insecurity and traumatized by decades of war. Pakistan and Afghanistan should undertake responsibility to solve our problems by our own and meet the challenges they are facing. We must realize that chaos, uncertainty and insecurity will continue to affect our lives if Islamabad and Kabul do not take their nations towards economic opportunity, democracy, and prosperity. The two neighbors can live at peace and prosperity if they listen, trust and respect each other.