More than two years after assuming office, Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Pakistan’s northern neighbor for the first time, with the focus firmly on the rising tide of violence in the country. The diplomatic trip was made after amid relatively improved relations that have long suffered from mutual mistrust and suspicions.
There was a flurry of high level visits of top government officials and lawmakers in the run-up to Khan’s maiden trip, which helped ease tensions and improve economic coordination. Intra-Afghan talks have remained stalled for the last eight weeks. The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue under way in Qatar has mostly stalled, with each side blaming the other for the delay.
President Ashraf Ghani called Imran Khan’s visit “historic” while the Pakistani prime minister assured the Afghan leader that his government would do “everything possible” in its capacity to help reduce violence in the war-torn country. The visit comes at a very crucial time for Afghanistan as Kabul government negotiators and the Taliban are holding U.S.-brokered negotiations with blessings of Pakistan in Qatar. Taliban maintain a political office in Qatar, to chart a course for a post-war Afghanistan.
Imran Khan again standing behind the stance of negotiations and much awaited peace deal between Taliban and Afghan government once again acknowledged that Pakistan had played a key role in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table and that Islamabad remains concerned that despite the talks in Qatar, the level of violence is rising in war torn Afghanistan. Khan further added that, whatever is possible, we will do to help reduce the violence, and help move the Afghan-Taliban talks toward a cease-fire. The whole objective of this visit is to build trust, which is two way traffic to communicate more, and intelligence sharing.
Pakistan’s links with the Afghan Taliban insurgent group, and Pakistani Taliban safe heavens in Afghans who allegedly cross border and undertake terrorist activities, sponsored by India have been the primary source of political tensions with Afghanistan. The two countries share a nearly 2,600-kilometer-long border, and Islamabad also accuses Kabul of allowing fugitive Pakistani militants to use Afghan border areas to plot cross-border subversive acts.
Khan’s government insists it is not behind any group or support any faction involved in the Afghan war. After the transition of government in Pakistan 2 year ago, the ruling party stance from beginning was to promote peace and Afghan’s issue is only in negotiation. Imran Khan said that Islamabad is working to promote a peaceful Afghanistan to ensure regional connectivity and economic prosperity. Landlocked Afghanistan has for decades relied mostly on Pakistani overland routes and seaports for bilateral and international trade. Mutual tensions, however, have significantly undermined bilateral trade activities in recent years and shifted Afghan’s trade mostly to Iran and India.
Pakistan hosts almost 3 million Afghan refugees and economic migrants, who have fled 40 years of violence, conservative religious persecution and poverty in their conflict-torn country. Islamabad says the refugee community serves as a hiding place for the Taliban and has been urging the international community to arrange for an early repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan.
Pakistan has been applauded by Washington and Kabul for its role in getting the Taliban to the peace table, first in direct talks with the United States, which resulted in an agreement that led to the so-called intra-Afghan negotiations now underway in Doha.
However, neither of the leaders addressed this week’s announcement from Washington of the decision of a delayed U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has rattled both sides in the Afghan conflict. There are rising fears of worsening violence and regional chaos, which some say could take things south and it may result in the Islamic State group’s local affiliate to regroup and perhaps even try to build another caliphate. If this happens, all the efforts made for peace in Afghanistan and making Taliban and Afghan government officials sit together will go in vain.
Under an earlier deal between the U.S. and the Taliban that outlined a gradual pullout from Afghanistan, the remaining U.S. forces were to leave Afghanistan by next April. The Pentagon now says some 2,500 troops will leave by January, just days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, leaving another 2,000 or so U.S. forces in place. It seems like “President Trump Administration * Pentagon” at least sat on table for the last time and agreed on something after the results of US Elections 2020.
Last September, Islamabad unveiled a string of what officials described as confidence building measures to facilitate Afghans visiting Pakistan for medical treatment, education and business dealings. The steps include long-term business, investment and student visas for Afghan visitors as opposed to traditional one-time entry visas for a limited number of days. Officials say Pakistan also has made operational all border terminals in recent weeks to facilitate bilateral and transit trade activities to help Kabul overcome increased economic troubles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pakistan’s main strategic goal in Afghanistan has been to contain growing Indian influence. This was evident last week, when Pakistan foreign office had announced it had new evidence of India’s alleged role in several terror attacks. Just five days before Khan’s important diplomatic trip, Pakistan foreign office claimed that Indian diplomats based in Kabul were involved in financing and inspecting terror camps on Afghan soil and had also named an Afghan national as the main suspect for the attack on Peshawar Agricultural University in 2017. Both Afghanistan and Indian officials issued strong denials of all the allegations.
Khan’s visit followed that of Afghanistan’s chief peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah, who visited Pakistan in September as the uneasy neighbors turned another dirty page of their relationship; from a relationship marked by suspicion and downright hostility toward a partnership for peace and mutual economic growth in the region.
Imran Khan chose a time to visit Kabul when tensions were already high after Islamabad in a recent press conference five days ago blamed Afghanistan of acting as a bypass to help India unsettle Pakistan by terrorist activities. Will this trip calm the nerve in Kabul’s camp? Time will tell.
Author is doing BS in International Relation from Lahore College for Women University. She is a freelance writer. Previously worked with The Frontier Post, Dawn and Express Tribune.