Thu, 29 May 2003

Pakistan-Afghan relations

M.J. Zahedi The Daily Star Asia News Network Dhaka

Pakistan is forging new ties with the new rulers of Afghanistan. But this is easier said than done. Pakistan's image as a strong supporter of the Taliban is proving a psychological barrier. The leaders of the Northern Front have been very hostile for they attributed their human and territorial loss and suffering to Pakistan.

The late Ahmed Shah Masud and his followers from Panjsher valley holding top positions in the Karzai administration consider Pakistan responsible for the civil war and the war against Taliban as a war against national liberation. But Karzai and many of his advisors and ministers from Pashtun areas have been eager to mend fences with Pakistan and start a new chapter.

After assuming the chairmanship of the new Afghan administration he chose Pakistan as first foreign destination and declared "we, Afghans, have nothing but goodwill for Pakistan and it is from the heart". Pakistan has tried to reassure all factions in Afghanistan that it has a new outlook and it would neither side with any faction, nor would it allow for any hostile action against the new government in Kabul.

It has also tried to seek assurances from the U.S. and other partners in the war against terrorism that Afghanistan would not be neglected. Islamabad used its influence indirectly and pushing the idea that the neglect of Pashtun majority would not bring about peace and stability. The feeling of alienation among the Pashtuns does exist, but with Hamid Karzai as head of the transitional government and cooptation of other Pashtuns into decision-making, power-sharing is better than any other time during the past twenty years.

The Northern Front leaders with key positions in the new government have reassessed the need to forge relations with Pakistan on pragmatic grounds. In May 2002 Afghanistan released 400 Pakistani prisoners, in addition to 500 released earlier. They understand better now than they did before that the economy of eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan is integrated with that of Pakistan, which offers the most economical, short and safe transit route and is a major source of supplies for the reconstruction of physical infrastructure.

And there are still about two million refugees on Pakistani soil waiting to be repatriated. The existing problems are tied with Pakistan more than any other neighbors.

The problem includes the fight against terrorism and the prospects of Afghanistan's economic revival and stability. Pakistan too has made conscious efforts to cultivate relations with new Afghan leaders. It has pledged US$100 million in assistance over a period of five years.

Besides already reimbursing $18 million, it has allowed liberal donations and sale of wheat from its surplus stock and other supplies on a regular basis and also allowed the use of its ports, roads and railways for all reconstruction activities. Relations between the two countries have improved, the government leaders of the two countries have been visiting each other and some of the distrust and bitterness is gone.

But they have to work more for relations to become really friendly. For this they have to take the route of economic cooperation. There are good signs that they are succeeding in this respect. The bilateral trade has increased. In July to November 2002, Pakistan exported goods worth $165 million to Afghanistan compared to $185 million in the entire 2001-2002 financial year. Imports from Afghanistan also increased.

The two countries have revived the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan gas pipeline project. The $2.7 million project would immensely contribute to the economy of Afghanistan. There are a number of problems that the two countries are yet to resolve. Repatriation of refugees, release of Pakistani prisoners from Afghan jails and transit trade facility are going to be on the top of agenda in the coming years.

Release of Pakistani prisoners is taking place (though at a slow pace), and Pakistan is willing to punish those who might be found involved in crimes against Afghan citizens; they have reached understanding to expedite the process. The issue of refugees is of course troublesome. There are an estimated 1.8 million in Pakistan; most of them wish to go back with or without UN help, as over 1.2 million who went earlier.

But their return would cause problem for the Afghan government as it lacks resources. Whether refugees go back or stay in Pakistan will depend on conditions of war, peace and economic opportunity. Therefore Pakistan's vital interest lies in that country's stability and peace. The transit trade is as old as the independence of Pakistan. Afghanistan being a land-locked country has the right of transit through Pakistan, which it has through bilateral agreement of 1965.

On occasions it has terminated this facility or tried to control the items that Afghanistan can import through Pakistan. The volume of this informal trade is estimated to be about $3 billion. Afghanistan wants unfettered transit trade, while Pakistan wants to ensure that whatever is imported through Pakistan stays in Afghanistan and is consumed there.

They have a dispute on the items Afghanistan can import, and this will be a continuing problem as most of these goods are sold in Pakistan. But this is a problem the two countries can solve.

The writer is a former editor of the Khaleez Times.