The question of decades long trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan remained the dominant them of a national seminar on “Pak-Afghan Relations; Exploring the way forward” organised by an Islamabad based think Tank – Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS). Can we put an end to the unending blame game? Can we burry the past? Can we bridge the trust deficit and look forward to a brighter future for the war-hit people of the region?

To seek answers to these questions, the seminar brought together a select group of prominent experts including foreign diplomats, security and political analysts, human rights activists and senior media leaders on the floor.

A mix blend of optimism and pessimism prevailed on the floor when the speakers started debating the causes, irritants and possible available options for mending the frosty relations between the two neighboring countries.

In not too distant past, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the then National Security Advisor Nasir Khan Janjua visited Afghanistan to connect the dots by offering its country’s help to resolving the decades long Afghan debacle. Pakistan’s initiative on Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPAS) brought together the high level government officials from both the countries under one roof to discuss the possibilities of working together on political, economic, ideological and military fronts by constituting various working groups. But still we are stuck in the past.

Afghanistan’s former President Mr. Hamid Karzai’s 16 visits followed by two consecutive visits to Pakistan by his successor Dr. Ashraf Ghani could hardly make any headway to mend the flimsy relations between the two neighboring countries. The positive remarks by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his inaugural speech on August 18 and the subsequent goodwill call by President Ghani to convey his best wishes for Mr Khan’s government followed by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s visit to Afghanistan on September 6 produced some hopes for optimism but the recent spate of violent activities in North Waziristan allegedly planned on Afghan soil by the Pakistan Taliban dashed all the hopes to the ground once again.

The message is louder and clear. Pakistan and Afghanistan have hardly any choice but to work together to defeat the common enemy – the IS. The respective governments should try to resolve mutual issues through relevant forums, not through media. Governments and its leaders may change from time to time but the people, who were there, are there, and would be there. The geography cannot be changed. Pakistan is sharing 2600-kilometer long border with Afghanistan.

The three consecutive Afghan generations were raised on Pakistani soil. They are living on Pakistani soil for almost four decades now. Those kids, who would go to Pakistani schools, listen to Pakistani national anthem and chant the slogan of Pakistan Zindabad certainly deserve to be granted Pakistani citizenship or at least a residential status. The stated position of the Afghan government on the issue is not yet clear, but if they want them repatriated, Pakistan should help them repatriate in a graceful way to maintain the high moral standards.

Thousands of the people from both ends cross the border every day through various formal and informal ways. Both the countries need to devise a strategy on how to check the wrong elements crossing the border through latest technology. Pakistan can soften the visa regime for Afghan visitors and specially patients for ease of movement. For better border management more legal crossing points could be established to check illegal trade. This would help raise the volume of trade between the two neighboring countries from 500 million dollars to Rs. 8000 billion annually. Afghanistan is better placed to join CPEC and help its war-battered people employ gainfully in a variety of business oriented projects. The young unemployed skilled youth could well benefit from the Pakistan funded projects in communication, construction, health and training programs.

Pakistan can initiate and increase scholarship quota for Afghan students. Joint ventures in tourism and sports like cricket and volleyball can promote the cause of peace in the region. Joint moves could be initiated in film industry. Pakistan film industry especially Pashto has a good market in Afghanistan to capture. Similarly both the countries can work together for eradication of polio from their soil. Both the countries can take the lead in granting land rights to each other’s TV channels. At the same time, both the countries should bind their respective TV channels to observe strict code of conducts and refrain from poisonous propaganda against each other. Pak- Afghan relations should be made part of the national discourse on both ends. Pakistan needs to strike good relationship with all the Afghan ethnic groups, not only Pashtuns.

Pakistan’s efforts aimed at mainstreaming FATA are a great step ahead to curb the menace of terrorism. Both the countries should not let any non-state actors use its soil for terrorist activities. Pakistan and Afghanistan could initiate joint military operations, preferably intelligence based, against the militants like they did in the past. Any party leveling allegations against the other should consult proper forums with evidences rather than highlighting the issue through media.

People to people contacts could be established. Writers, intellectuals, poets, academicians and religious scholars could play a vital role in paving the way for mutual understanding between the neighboring countries with shared social, cultural and religious values.

Both the countries should bury the past and look forward towards a brighter and better tomorrow with open heart and mind. This should be working relationship between the two neighboring countries, independent of any dictation from the third party to put this region on the track to progress and prosperity and provide decent life opportunities to its war-hit people.

 

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.

khan45@gmail.com