Every new government has its own way of foreign policy formulation. This time it will be Pakistan Tehrik e Insaaf’s (PTI) turn. According to Imran Khan, “PTI would formulate an independent foreign policy to build foreign relations on the basis of dignity and self-respect.”
In this regard an assessment of Pakistan’s immediate foreign policy challenges in Afghanistan are of special interest. A quick and robust act from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to congratulate Imran Khan on the victory in parliamentary elections is seen as a positive gesture, when Khan in his first address to the nation had said, “his government would like to have better ties with Afghanistan.” It means there will be no disruption in healthy relations between the two states, as previously, both states agreed upon a bilateral agreement called the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). Certainly this was viewed as a positive stride because it reflects change in Kabul’s acrimonious tone towards Pakistan. It is envisaged that this framework will reinforce mutual trust and enhance bilateral engagements which is need of the hour.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have remained hostile for decades and have always blamed each other for rancorous activities on either side of the border. To end this hostility, framework like APAPPS seems to be a viable option to counter challenges in the way of working up relations between both the states.
Afghanistan’s rigid position towards Pakistan for decades has provided space for outsiders to exploit its relations with its immediate neighbor. Afghanistan at the moment is playing in the hands of peripheral powers. US narrative has always been that they’ll find the Afghan solution through war. They have once again proved their policy by sending more soldiers and increasing air strikes in Afghanistan. According to journalist Imtiaz Gul,
“The new Trump policy will be an extremely difficult thing to implement if not disastrous it overlooks certain basic ground realities and the ground reality is that the region is currently divided into two major blocks. One block comprises India, Afghanistan and the US. The other block comprises; Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey and Iran. These countries have their own view on how to move ahead with the peace process in Afghanistan whereas Trump seems to be going for military solution which means he is trying to invest more in security crises in Afghanistan just because when more troops will come this will perpetuate and precipitate security crises in Afghanistan by drawing adverse reaction from Taliban. This will raise alarm inside Pakistan which has been doing what it can on counterterrorism front and has aligned its policies with those of Russia, China, Turkey and Iran. And the new Trump policy will also raise alarm because the 12000 troops will be seen as an attempt to keep an eye on Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran with the support of India. India is being raised as regional hegemon in support of the US policies in the region. The new policy is basically recipe to continued precipitation of the security crises in Afghanistan and until both blocks align their policies to seek a regionally driven consensual solution for Afghanistan. It will be very difficult for peace to return in Afghanistan.”
Thus, US is not in favor of talks with Taliban. This is also clear from our past experience, when Pakistan mediated a dialogue in Murree it was halted by the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Omer and when it was initiated a second time, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was killed in a drone attack. Such episodes question the honesty of US for a peace process in Afghanistan. Furthermore, US has sidelined Pakistan in Afghanistan and by giving India a bigger role in Afghanistan, automatically creates suspicion and hatred between both the states, so the US is constantly playing the role of a spoiler in the Peacemaking process.
In this backdrop it is necessary for Pakistan and Afghanistan to enhance their relations, not just for the peace and security of their own states but of the whole region. This makes Pakistan a key player that has to reach to Russia, China, and Iran to counter US and India in Afghanistan. If this block is successfully created, Pakistan may survive diplomatically, even with distancing from the US. India’s soft power thrust and the US influence in Afghanistan can be countered in a number of ways but the question is, which particular platforms can be used in order to enhance and enrich relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and rest of the region?
Firstly, for peace, prosperity and stability inside Afghanistan, key role has to be played by Afghans, not just by political leaders rather by leaders from the society, respected by all clans and ethnic groups. People having credibility with everyone in Afghanistan. For decades Afghanistan has been used as a battleground for strategic wars by external powers. It is home to multiple ethnic communities which has led to tug of war between them as different external powers support different groups, which has caused immense devastation. Presently, Peacemaking activities can only be successful if Afghan leaders avoid to repeat past mistakes i.e. playing in the hands of external powers. All the respected and notable leaders of all ethnic communities’ have to spread the message of remaining tolerant towards each other. Key to success is that strength must be found within a pluralistic environment in Afghanistan. Inclusion of all ethnic groups rather than exclusion must remain the emphasis; Pushtoons, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras etc. should work together for rebuilding Afghanistan. This way, inevitably the vacuum will be filled which has always been exploited by the external powers will be filled.
Secondly, without Pakistan’s support, peace and stability cannot be established in Afghanistan. This was the necessity that the US and Afghanistan have eventually realized and are now considering Pakistan as a partner instead of a hurdle in the resolution of the Afghan conflict. APAPPS is a way forward in enhancing relations and finding solutions to Pak-Afghan issues. For the success of APAPPS it is necessary to end the blame game and accusations in terms of tolerance to sanctuaries, which is one of the 7 principles of APAPPS. Time has come that we take honest and effective measures to address the terrorist sanctuaries on whichever side they may be, because both the states are acutely affected by terrorism.
Refugee repatriation is also one of the principles of the APAPPS. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are more than 5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. There are around 2.4 million registered Afghan refugees holding proof of Registration cards (PoR). And there are more than 2.4 million undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan with the help of UNHCR must prepare a timeline for repatriation of refugees. Generally, the return remains low but that should not lead to undignified and forced return. Voluntary and dignified returns should be preferred by Pakistan by respecting international standards in treatment of refugees.
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan has also launched the Allama Muhammad Iqbal Scholarship Programme for Afghan National Students under which 3000 scholarships will be awarded in various fields including Medicine, Engineering, Agriculture, Management and Computer Science etc. It will increase people to people contact between the two brotherly states. The scholarship covers living allowance, book allowance, and hostel dues and university tuition fee. These scholarships are being offered at Graduate, Post graduate and PhD level. The main objective of these scholarship is, “To sponsor Afghan students for quality education and to promote human resource development for reconstruction of Afghanistan.”
Joint economic development is another principle of APAPPS. Economically both the states can benefit from each other. Pakistan is the shortest and quickest trade route for Afghanistan and Pakistan is the largest trading partner of Afghanistan. Previously, due to security issues, poor connectivity and infrastructure created hurdles for economic prosperity. To boost connectivity, Quetta-Kandahar-Herat and Peshawar-Jalalabad railroad projects will be effective. Moreover, both states have also agreed to move forward on Chaman-Kandahar-Herat railway line, Peshawar-Kabul Motorway, and other connectivity projects.
Thirdly, for shared prosperity, regional cooperation remains a strong determinant. Afghanistan can play the role of a regional land-bridge. As compared to other substitute routes, Afghanistan can provide the shortest and most cost-effective routes for roads, railroads, pipelines and electricity transmission lines between Central Asia and South Asia. Therefore development of infrastructure in Afghanistan can connect two vital regions i.e. South Asia and Central Asia. And all the states can benefit from it, in terms of trade, energy, tourism, people to people contact etc.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will also increase regional connectivity across South and Central Asia. Pakistan’s infrastructure developments, supported by CPEC, can function as a mechanism to provide Afghanistan and the Central Asian states access to the Arabian Sea and thus potentially lead to higher regional trade volumes. CASA-1000 project (Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Program) is one of the direct linkages between South Asia and Central Asia. CASA-1000 is a landmark energy export agreement between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (two Central Asian and two South Asian countries).
Iran, just as China, Pakistan and Russia is equally playing a constructive role by getting engaged in various developmental and infrastructural projects e.g. Five-Nation Railway Corridor is a project connecting China with Iran through Afghanistan and two Central Asian states (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Central Asian states are also part of various projects for instance, TAP-500-Kv (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) energy transmission project. It will transfer electricity from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
More regional ventures can be boosted by Strategic Partnership of Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran. This strategic partnership can be a game changer. This regional alliance clearly favors the inclusion of the Taliban in the Afghan government. According to New York Times Taliban have support of 1/3 of Afghanistan population. People of Afghanistan support them because they are resisting foreign presence. Additionally, Taliban have achieved a number of diplomatic successes such as having direct contacts with major regional powers i.e. Russia and China. All these states are in favor of political solution of Afghan conflict as contrary to the US solution i.e. to win war through military means. US’ unilateral stubbornness can push Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and Taliban to a common objective of ousting US from Afghanistan. Secondly, this strategic partnership can also engage with Taliban to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban for the peace and prosperity of Afghanistan and the region. Moreover, this partnership can tackle the menace of ISIS in Afghanistan and rest of the region. As, ISIS is a common enemy of Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and even Taliban. It is necessary to formulate a strategy to keep out ISIS from the region because ISIS can be used as US proxy in Afghanistan to counter the strategic partnership of Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran – to reverse its defeat.
Just like having good relations with Afghanistan. It is necessary to have healthy ties with India as well. The European Union model proves yesterday’s enemies can be today’s friends. Why can’t India and Pakistan improve their relations in a similar capacity? Like Afghan President, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated Imran Khan over his party’s victory and said, “We are ready to enter a new era of relations with Pakistan. Both the countries should adopt a joint strategy for progress in bilateral ties.” Whereas, according to the PTI statement, “Khan thanked the Indian PM for his good wishes and said, the solution to conflicts should be found through dialogue. The two governments should devise a joint plan of action to free people of both countries from the cruel trap of poverty.”
Pakistan and India have to start from scratch and initiate a peace dialogue. For that Sequencing is highly required as it is not possible to resolve all the issues at one time. In the past too, dialogue has been-initiated from time to time but unfortunately it failed to achieve the objectives due to spoilers on both the sides. Peace is beneficial for both the nuclear states therefore once again renewed efforts are required for fresh dialogue. Both the states must start with the smaller issues and move towards the bigger ones, and eventually moving towards Kashmir’s resolution which is the major bone of contention between India and Pakistan.
PTI believes in regional integration therefore it is necessary to enhance relations with all regional countries. Presently, Pakistan is enjoying good relations with Russia, and China has always been a strong support for Pakistan. For cordial relations with India, China and Russia can play the role of mediators because the resolution of Kashmir will not just ease tension between India and Pakistan but will also increase regional peace and prosperity.
In Pakistan soon PTI will form government in the center. It will be crucial for the ruling party to formulate a foreign policy. To maintain relations with the US on the basis of equality as mentioned during their election campaign is one of the biggest challenge. US is constantly pressurizing Pakistan. In this way is it possible to maintain ties? There is clear tilt of US towards India in the region. It has already created 2 blocks in the region India verses the rest of the region. In this backdrop will PTI be able to initiate dialogue with India. As far as relations with Afghanistan are concerned APAPPS is a positive step but it will require constant efforts to meet its objectives. The only ray of hope are China and Russia. China has always remained friendly whereas, Pakistan is expanding its ties with Russia at fast pace. The bottom line is Pakistan needs to maintain good relations with the regional players for regional prosperity.