To bring about a major change in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, both the countries need to interact with sincerity, focusing on people and overcoming misperceptions about each other. Overcoming mistrust still remains a key challenge.
These thoughts were expressed in a national seminar on ‘Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations: Exploring the Way Forward,’ organised by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank, with the support of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The conference explored if, with the coming of new government in Pakistan, new avenues can be explored in its relations with Afghanistan.
Taking cue from the past, participants reminded that the latest attempt to explore the way forward in Pakistan-Afghanistan ties is not the first one. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan reminded that when it comes to the recent past, there has been ‘no shortage’ of official visits and positive statements. The highest number of visits by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to any foreign country was to Pakistan, he shared. Rahimullah Yousafzai, who has deep insight on Pak-Afghan developments, said when Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president, a ray of optimism beamed in Pakistan. Similarly, from Pakistan’s side, successive governments have tried their best to move the relations further.
And yet, for all these efforts, there are reports of starting afresh with the same goal – moving forward. This, participants said, owed to “mistrust” and “misperception” about each other. The two needs to interact with honesty and sincerity. PIPS Director Muhammad Amir Rana said. the two needs to move past the past. The Afghan ambassador suggested that the relation be made part of political discourse on both sides, saying “We need to interact within ourselves, instead of with each other only,” he said.
Participants suggested a range of steps to reset the ties: Rahimullah Yousafzai argued that Pakistan should strike friendship with all ethnic groups in Afghanistan instead of any particular one. Lt. General (r) Hamid Khan, former Corps Commander Peshawar, noted that a “coordinated operation” can be conducted against common threats such as ISIS.
The new dimension of “religion diplomacy” was also discussed in light of recent international dialogues involving Pakistani and Afghan scholars who deliberated on violence in Afghanistan. A participant of those dialogues, Dr. Qibla Ayaz, Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), shared the deliberations pondered upon a range of scholarly issues such as religious justification of war in Afghanistan.
Participants also touched upon the debate surrounding Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement of awarding citizenship to Afghan refugees. Former diplomat Aziz Ahmed Khan said that even if citizenship is not offered, some middle way can be found out, such as by some kind of resident cards. An Afghan diplomat suggested that his government’s policy has been for voluntary and dignified repatriation.
Meanwhile, human rights activist Marvi Sirmed said, women have suffered the most when relations are deteriorated. Lamenting the negligible presence of women in Pakistan-Afghanistan Plan of Action, she called for including them in any framework that seeks solution.