By Javed Hafeez
It is now quite clear that improving relations with Pakistan’s immediate neighbors is a priority for the country’s new government. Regionalism is at the heart of Imran Khan’s new foreign policy. “I will try to bridge the trust deficit between Pakistan and other regional countries,” said Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi after he assumed office. The trust deficit that he was referring to pertains to Afghanistan and India. Pakistan shares very long borders with both these neighbors and it is hugely important for all three countries to improve ties and secure peace for the welfare of their people.
Qureshi expressed his intention to soon visit Kabul “to bring a solid message for the people of Afghanistan.” He added that he wanted to tell the people of Afghanistan that both nations should be the other’s support base. He also recognized that improving relations could prove to be a long journey.
About India, Qureshi said: “We are not just neighbors — we are atomic powers. We have a lot of common resources.” He added that an uninterrupted Indo-Pakistani dialogue was the only way forward. Several rounds of “composite dialogue” have been held but talks have been stalled for some years.
With Afghanistan, a positive development was achieved earlier this year, when the two countries agreed to establish five working groups under the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity. These bilateral groups pertain to politico-diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic and trade, and refugees’ issues. There are two-and-a-half million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and their camps have been used by terrorists as hideouts. It is in the interest of peace in Afghanistan that this link is severed as early as possible; and the surest way to achieve that is to repatriate all refugees to their homes.
The fragile and divided government in Kabul is dependent on the US and India in many ways. While its relations with the US leave a lot to be desired, any improvement in Indo-Pakistani ties would also impact well on Pakistan’s bond with its western neighbor. This is achievable, as the dividend of Indo-Afghan trade through Pakistan is a sumptuous goal.
This region needs a grand detente for the benefit of its people. Wars and internal conflicts have only brought destruction and misery. The Afghanistan of 1979 was far better off than it is today — it was fashionable in those days for honeymooning couples from Pakistan to go to Kabul. While we cannot go back in time, we can certainly ensure a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.
For some years now, India has been insisting that terrorism should be the major subject of bilateral dialogue. Pakistan, on the other hand, wants more comprehensive talks encompassing Kashmir, terrorism, economic and commercial cooperation, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage, Siachen, etc. Pakistan believes that, by sweeping the core issue of Kashmir under the carpet, India is doing no service to peace. The Kashmir valley is in flames again as India tries to obliterate its special constitutional status. In their hour of need, Kashmiris look toward Islamabad to espouse their cause. Next year is an election year in India and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can ill afford to go soft on Pakistan; hence there has been no immediate breakthrough.
In this vitiated atmosphere, one was pleasantly amazed to see the positive impact of Indian cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit to attend Khan’s swearing-in ceremony. He was warmly received in Pakistan and was seated in the front row. When army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa told him that Pakistan would open the corridor leading to a Sikh holy temple in Kartarpur on the occasion of the 550th anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak’s birth next year, Sidhu hugged him instantly. This hug went viral on social media and Sidhu was subjected to tough questioning by the Indian media upon his return. He defended his position, effectively highlighting the benefits of peace with Pakistan.
The regional political temperatures are mercurial. The Afghan Taliban entered the strategic city of Ghazni earlier this month and has held talks with US officials, as well as accepting Moscow’s invitation for regional talks, so it is fighting and talking at the same time. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Islamabad soon, Prime Minister Khan has made it abundantly clear that Pakistan will no longer fight others’ wars. He qualified that by saying Pakistan was ready to become a partner in Afghan peace.
Peace with Afghanistan and India enjoys bipartisan support in Pakistan and, by attaching top priority to improving relations with both neighbors, Qureshi was expressing public sentiment. Peace is a necessity for all three countries — the earlier their leaders realize this, the better it will be for their citizens.
(Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed)