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Pak-Afghan Relations


The growing wall of distrust

Zahid Hussain December 20, 2017

IT is not just about the hostility of the government in Kabul; more troubling is the fact that the adverse sentiments in Afghanistan towards Pakis­tan are deeply entrenched in the public. The indignation has heightened over the past years, with most people in Kabul blaming Pakistan for their suffering. Those feelings are especially evident in urban and educated sections of Afghan society. There are very few who see Pakistan in a positive light. 

This was very clear during my interaction last week with young students at a private university in Kabul. Education is one area that has seen massive progress over the last one decade in this country, despite worsening political instability and the spreading insurgency. Hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in more than one dozen universities in the city — a marked transformation from the days of the retrogressive Afghan Taliban rule. 

Most students I interacted with in a seminar shared similar views about Pakistan being a villain that is responsible for many of Afghanistan’s problems. Among the audience, there were many who were either born in Pakistan or whose parents had lived there as refugees for decades. Many complained about Pakistan supporting the insurgents responsible for the death of thousands of Afghans. Distrust of Pakistan is palpable. It is hard to find anyone in the Afghan capital willing to speak in favour of Pakistan.

It is hard to find anyone in the Afghan capital willing to speak in favour of Pakistan.

Ironically, there are many in the cabinet and several high-ranking officials in the Afghan government who spent a large part of their lives in Pakistan and benefited from its hospitality. The resentment is not restricted to any particular ethnic group — it is across the board. Even former Taliban officials who now live in Kabul have little empathy for the country which once patronised them. One is not sure, however, about public sentiments in other parts of the country. 

Of course, it is expedient for our civilian and military leadership to dismiss these growing anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan as merely inspired by ‘enemy forces’. This state of denial is, however, not helpful in improving our image. Surely, one cannot deny that there has been a concerted campaign to slander Pakistan and make it a scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong in the war-torn country across the border. Yet one must not gloss over our flawed policies and attitude that are stoking public scepticism inside Afghanistan. 

One of the major reasons for Pakistan’s growing isolation is that our entire Afghan policy is built around a skewed security paradigm while diplomacy has taken a back seat. Understandably, four decades of conflict in the region and Pakistan’s position as a front-line state has enhanced the role of the security agencies. But the formulation and implementation of policy should not be left entirely to the security establishment. 

In fact, there is a great need for diplomacy to take charge in times of conflict. Our foreign policy has suffered hugely because of its direction being determined solely by a national security paradigm that must be corrected in light of the fast-changing geopolitics of the region. Indeed, past baggage and Afghanistan being turned into a centre of a new Great Game does not make it easy for our policymakers to tread the tricky path. 

But sticking to the old ways may not help deal with the challenges. Irrespective of whichever government is in power in Kabul we need to work with it and to respect its sovereignty. Our obsession with a ‘friendly’ Pakhtun-dominated government in the past has hugely contributed to public resentment against Pakistan. 

One understands the concerns of our security establishment regarding India’s growing presence in Afghanistan, but the issue must not be exaggerated so that it clouds our entire decision-making process. What irritates the Afghans most is our insistence on curtailing India’s role in their country. Its very mention is seen as meddling in their internal matters. 

Indeed, Pakistani militant groups having been granted sanctuaries across the border and the alleged Indian connection with these terrorist networks has become a major source of tension between Islamabad and Kabul. But there are also allegations of Afghan insurgent groups operating from inside Pakistani territory. 

The question regarding Pakistan’s alleged support for the Taliban insurgents is not only regularly raised at official meetings but also questioned by the public. The rise of Taliban insurgents is seen by the younger generation as the most serious threat to the gains made in the field of education. The number of female students reportedly surpasses that of males in most universities and they want this trend to be protected. 

It is not only important to improve relations with the Kabul government, but also to bridge the widening gap with the Afghan people. We have failed to take advantage of our geographical and cultural proximity to win public goodwill and strengthen our economic and trade ties in order to neutralise the antagonists. It is not just geopolitics but also geo-economics that should be driving our Afghan policy. 

The recent measures taken by Pakistani authorities to send back Afghan refugees and put restrictions on cross-border travel have added to the indignation. Many complain about long queues for visa and difficulties in travelling to Peshawar for medical treatment. 

Now many of them are flying to India that is providing a subsidised air travel facility for those requiring medical help. Unnecessary travel restrictions under the pretext of border management have further alienated the Afghans. The move has also affected trade, with Pakistani exporters suffering greater losses. 

Although Pakistan remains Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner, the situation may change soon with Iran and Central Asia making significant inroads into the Afghan markets. The move to close down the border for over a month early this year has dealt an irreversible blow to our exports to Afghanistan that had reached between $2 billion and $5bn in 2014. 

Such short-sighted and reactive actions have hugely affected our interests in Afghanistan. Hence it is not surprising to see how young Afghans feel about us. 

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2017

The Saudi factor

 January 03, 2018
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.


THE sudden dash by the Sharif brothers to Saudi Arabia and their reported audience with the crown prince gives a new twist to the ongoing political soap opera. It was certainly not a routine official visit; it is then unsurprising that it has generated intense speculation. Whatever transpired at the meeting is likely to have an extremely significant impact on the Sharif family’s future political course. 

It will be particularly interesting to see whether Nawaz Sharif continues with his politics of confrontation or takes a moderate path following his visit to the holy land. There may not be any NRO in the offing that is being widely speculated. Yet the possibility of some kind of deal being negotiated cannot be ruled out. There is strong speculation regarding Saudi pressure on Nawaz Sharif to step aside and hand over the party leadership to his younger brother thus ensuring the unity of the ruling party. 

One is, however, not sure about the disgraced former prime minister’s accepting any enforced abdication of his leadership role while facing trial on corruption charges. It will certainly not be easy for him to back down after throwing down the gauntlet and promising to take the fight to the end. It is hard to envisage him quietly fading away from the political scene. But a hard-line position may have serious consequences for his party and his family’s dynastic politics. 

It appears that the Saudi rulers have put their weight behind Shahbaz Sharif.

It was neither a courtesy call, nor were the brothers invited to the kingdom to discuss regional security issues. The very fact that the two leaders were summoned gives credence to reports about Saudi concerns over growing political instability in Pakistan, one of the kingdom’s most critical allies in the region. It sounds plausible that the meeting was solely linked to the prevailing crisis in Pakistan emanating from the judicial ouster of Nawaz Sharif and his politics of confrontation. 

While the Saudi involvement in Pakistan’s internal politics is not new, there is no precedence for political leaders being summoned to the kingdom for negotiations on a purely internal political matter in this way. It has surely more to do with the abrasive manner of the young Saudi crown prince who is now effectively the ruler of the kingdom. The sequence of events too has added to the curiosity over the matter. 

Interestingly, the Saudi government sent a special plane to fly Shahbaz Sharif to Riyadh where he reportedly held a series of meetings with senior Saudi officials before the arrival of his elder brother. Strangely, Nawaz Sharif was not given the same protocol, and, reportedly, had to wait for an audience with the crown prince. The plot thickens given the conflicting statements from the party leaders. 

It appears that the Saudi rulers have put their weight behind Shahbaz Sharif. But one is not sure that the Saudi involvement even at the highest level could tilt the balance in Pakistani politics. Of course, such a proposition may have the support of some senior PML-N leaders as well as the security establishment. But the situation is much more complicated. 

Despite his disqualification and being charged on various counts of financial misdeeds, Nawaz Sharif remains perhaps the most formidable political force in the country. Any deal to keep him completely out of the political scene may not be that easy. Surely, one must not underestimate the Saudi factor in Pakistani politics, particularly the kingdom’s influence over the Sharif family. But it cannot enforce any deal.

Indeed, the Sharif family owed much to the Saudis for getting them out from Gen Musharraf’s prison and hosting them during their exile. But that close relationship came under strain after the Sharif government declined the Saudi request to send Pakistani troops to Yemen. The change of leadership in Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah and the rise to power of Salman bin Abdul Aziz and his son Mohammad bin Salman had also affected that close relationship. 

That cooling of relations was reflected in the reported refusal of the Saudi government to come to the rescue of the Sharif family during the JIT probe into the money trail leading to the Sharifs’ London properties. The funds from the sale of a steel mill set up by the family during their exile in Saudi Arabia were supposed to be one of the sources of financing for their foreign properties. But the Saudi authorities could not endorse the record of the sale. 

It is also evident that the monarchy has traditionally maintained a much closer relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment. All the military rulers had very close ties with the kingdom. Retired Gen Musharraf has publicly acknowledged receiving millions of dollars from King Abdullah, after he stepped down from power, to buy his properties in London and Dubai. 

Despite the strained relationship between the two countries in the past year, the Saudi government’s ties with the Pakistani military have not weakened. The appointment of retired Gen Raheel Sharif as head of the so-called Islamic alliance force is an example of the close bond. Some reports suggest that the main purpose of summoning the Sharif brothers was to persuade them to adopt a policy of reconciliation rather than confrontation. It is obvious that the PML-N under Shahbaz Sharif is still the best bet for Riyadh. 

Such deep involvement of a foreign country, however close, in our domestic politics is cause for serious concern. Unfortunately, it has become an acceptable phenomenon in this country to allow outsiders to mediate in our internal political disputes. 

It is not just Saudi Arabia but other foreign nations too that have been using their clout over different political parties to influence politics in this country. Such foreign involvement adversely affects the democratic process. Any political deal brokered by the Saudis must be rejected. Instead of looking towards Saudi Arabia, the Sharifs should decide about their political future themselves. 

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2018

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