Written By: Hassan Khan
It was amidst this environment that General Bajwa took a one-day sojourn to Kabul. The visit has phenomenal immediate effects and is called to be an ice breaker in long frosty relation of the two countries.
Commenting on the maiden visit of Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Kabul and meetings with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan Dr. Hazrat Omar Zakhelwal in his tweet termed the exchanges as “candid, positive, respectful, constructive and encouraging meeting in a long time. I'm proud to have played a facilitating role in all this.”
Indeed, Omar Zakhelwal should be the most proud person on the occasion. Because his long untiring background work for more than a year not only materialized the visit of Pakistan’s top soldier to Kabul but also made it a highly successful one by simultaneously working on his own president who had, otherwise, adopted a very tough and inflexible position vis-a-vis contacts with Pakistan.
General Bajwa visited the Afghan capital on October 1 amidst highly tense environment when prospect of talks on subjects like peace, stability and cooperation in countering terrorism were dim due to ongoing distrust and blame game.
“I believe,” Afghan Ambassador Omar Zakhelwal told a delegation of Pakistani journalists at his residence in Islamabad, “the visit was highly successful keeping in view its immediate results.”
What are the immediate results? “The instant effect is on the highly negative narratives against Pakistan prevalent both at official and non-official levels in Kabul.”
The bilateral relations between the two neighboring countries were touching the lowest ebbs since April this year when President Dr. Ghani categorically declared, “Kabul will no longer seek Pakistan’s role in peace talks with Taliban.” Ghani severed direct contacts with Pakistani top leadership following the deadly terrorist attack on Afghan security forces headquarters in Kabul on April 19.
Dr. Ashraf Ghani – believed to be a hard nut to crack – visited Pakistan only once in November 2014 just a month after taking oath as head of the state. Since then he has rejected official invitations to come to Pakistan twice.
In May this year a delegation of senior Pakistani politicians visited Kabul under the leadership of National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq and extended an invitation to the Afghan President to visit Pakistan.
“I will not go to Pakistan till the perpetrators behind the attacks on Mazar-i-Sharif, American University [in Kabul] and Kandahar attacks are handed over to Afghan authorities and until Islamabad takes concrete action against Afghan Taliban militants on Pakistani soil,” Ghani was quoted as saying while unequivocally rejecting the invitation.
The fact is the long disengagement between top political and military leadership of both countries has widened the gulf of mistrust between the two neighbors and led to more misunderstandings and misconceptions.
People of both the countries started believing what their respective government leaders were telling them about the worsening security situations on both sides of the border.
Afghans primarily accuse Pakistan to be providing sanctuaries and safe havens to the Afghan Taliban and the dreaded Haqqani network. Both the militant groups are believed to be the perpetrators in a number of deadly terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan targeting security forces and innocent civilians.
Similarly negative narratives are also widespread on this side of the international border. Almost every Pakistani seemed to be convinced that Afghan government and its intelligence agency are providing safe sanctuaries to terrorists and their outfits who are launching terrorist attacks inside Pakistan and killing innocent civilians.
This situation has reached a level where leaderships of both the countries never feel shy of accusing each other freely at international forums for the prevailing instability in the region.
The ears of Pakistanis are still buzzing with the nasty venomous speech of Dr Ashraf Ghani, who pointing finger at Pakistani delegation at Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar, thundered, "We need to identify cross-border terrorism and a fund to combat terrorism. Pakistan has pledged $500m for Afghanistan's development. This amount can be spent to contain extremism…. As a Taliban figure said recently, if they had no sanctuary in Pakistan, they wouldn't last a month."
In November the same year, Afghanistan joined India to boycott SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad which resulted in its postponement.
Pakistan’s position on resolution on the Afghan conflict via dialogue is gaining popularity and finding more takers now. There is now increasing realization that there is no military solution to the conflict. And there is a need of pursuing the course of sustained dialogue in order to restore complete peace and stability to the war ravaged country.
It was amidst this environment that General Bajwa took a one-day sojourn to Kabul. The visit has phenomenal immediate effects and is called to be an ice breaker in long frosty relation between the two countries.
The visit of the top commander to Afghan capital followed a very important meeting of national security committee in Islamabad that fully authorized him to take decisions.
Besides, having an impact – as stated by the Afghan ambassador – on the prevalent negative narratives against Pakistan, the other immediate visible impression was softening of the very tough-going Dr. Ashraf Ghani and other senior Afghan leadership including former President Hamid Karzai who has otherwise left no opportunity to chastise and accuse Pakistan for every wrong – minor or major – on Afghan soil.
“I call, once again on Pakistan to intensify the state-to-state dialogue with us to secure regional peace and security,” said Dr. Ghani while speaking to Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) in Kabul. He also urged Taliban militia leadership to shun violence and join the peace process.
Terming the development as a ‘beginning of new era,’ Ghani was quoted as saying, “Good opportunities of cooperation are [being] provided and both countries should get the most out of the current situation.”
It seemed a complete U-turn by Afghan President from his earlier hardline position on ‘not-engaging Pakistan’ in any way until it hands over perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the development as an opportunity for Pakistan and Afghanistan to sit together like brothers and resolve their differences through talks. “I want Pakistan to increase friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan,” Karzai said in an interview with BBC.
These are, no doubt, positive vibes emanating from Kabul. In another major policy shift the Afghan President accepted an invitation – extended by the Pakistan military chief – of visiting Pakistan at an appropriate time.
The visit, if materialized at the earliest, will cement the broken bilateral ties and provide a good opportunity to the leadership to work together for achieving common objectives of peace and stability.
Pakistan’s position on resolution of the Afghan conflict via dialogue is gaining popularity and finding more takers now. There is now increasing realization that there is no military solution to the conflict. And there is a need of pursuing the course of sustained dialogue in order to restore complete peace and stability to the war ravaged country.
Another important aspect of General Bajwa’s visit was not being restricted to the security side of relations with Afghanistan, it included all issues concerning the bilateral relationship.
A statement issued by Afghan’s Presidential office stated General Bajwa and Dr. Ghani discussed ‘various important issues including security in region, bilateral relationships, peace and stability, anti-terror efforts, business and transit relationships, and mid-term and long-term relationships between Afghanistan and Pakistan.’
A similar statement from General Headquarters via ISPR, referring to the same issues, stated, “…issues related to long-term peace, cooperation against shared threats, coordination between respective counter-terrorism campaigns to restrict space for non-state actors, intelligence sharing, trade and commerce, and people-to-people contacts were discussed.”
However, one must be mindful of the fact that such interactions between top leadership of both the countries in the past also led to an environment of euphoria and lofty rhetoric.
If past is the witness, this not the first time that both sides, as they did again on October 1, vowed to forget the past and work hard for a better future.
Simultaneously, Pakistan’s leadership also needs to be cautious in raising expectations of ordinary Afghans vis-a-vis measures for restoring peace in the war-torn country and sanctuaries of Afghan militants.
There shall also be restraints in issuing statements from leadership level loaded with lofty promises like ‘new season of relationship’, ‘forgetting the past’, ‘moving ahead’, ‘shrinking space for anti-state actors’ etc. In the past the same were instrumental in hiking expectations of ordinary Afghans. Instead a realistic approach be adopted to normalizing relations with an important neighbor whose peace and stability equally guarantees Pakistan’s own security and stability.
However, instead of sounding cynical by all standards the current understanding between the leadership of both the countries is a big step in the right direction. And again there is nothing to doubt the sincerity of the leadership of both the countries in working together with dedication and devotion to ensure peace, stability and economic prosperity in both the countries. The need is to pursue the peace efforts with perseverance and determination, not succumbing to stray happenings on either side of the border.
However, last but not the least, both the leaderships shall be vigilant to the spoilers of good brotherly relationships between Islamabad and Kabul. Because there is no shortage of such elements within both countries coupled with some foreign ‘friends’ whose interests in the region are ensured only when both Pakistan and Afghanistan are at daggers drawn positions.
The writer is a senior journalist, analyst and anchorperson.