By Robert Gallimore
In these times of grim global outlooks, international relations in Central Asia are not the obvious place to start looking for succour; even less so in the wake of recent clashes between Indian and Chinese forces in Ladakh. There are justified concerns these may provide the spark to an already dry regional tinderbox.
These fears should be set against and in part mitigated by some encouraging news regarding the thawing of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The voices of these two nations are too often unheard, yet they form the regional fulcrum around which the behemoths of the US, Russia, China and India spin. It is important to remember that if the fulcrum breaks, everyone falls off.
Pak-Afghan relations, so often soured by the expediencies of US policy, appear to be on the mend, and this may augur the birth of a productive relationship that will benefit the region immeasurably.
This warming is manifesting itself on several fronts. The most public of these has been the recent visit of Pakistan Army Chief of Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Kabul where he held talks with the Afghan President. That this meeting took place at all is remarkable, more remarkable is the evident common ground and desire for co-operation that was apparent.
It is encouraging to witness these first steps toward greater understanding between Islamabad and Kabul. In the past, every interaction was blighted by fears bearing no relation to what those of us on the ground knew to be the truth and a paranoia untethered to reality. Plagued by nightmares, these neighbours sleep walked along a path of deteriorating relations and this awakening in Kabul is to be celebrated.
I am thrilled that the Afghan soldiers I once led will no longer blame every setback on the imagined interference of Pakistan, when often that failure’s provenance lay in internal corruption. It is unquestionably good that they will no longer search for illusory foreign insurgents in a landscape where those foes simply did not exist. Every fighter we fought had been born within five miles of where we met him. Unburdened by these delusions, the ANSF will be free to fulfil their duties with greater efficiency.
Cordial relations between neighbours is an undeniable desirable, never more so than when both are infected by the same contagion of a Taliban insurgency that pays scant regard to borders.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have addressed the Taliban in different manners, and with differing results. Whilst in Afghanistan the foe has festered resiliently to the point of primacy; in Pakistan they have withered beyond containment to the cusp of defeat. These contrasting approaches could not coexist as Afghan intransigence threatened the achievements of Pakistani pragmatism.
It now appears Kabul has chosen to heed Pakistani advice and that counsel has done much to reinvigorate a stalled peace process. Intent can be discerned in the Afghan government’s announcement that 3000 Taliban prisoners would be released – this announcement coming shortly after General Bajwa’s visit.
There is much that both Pakistan and Afghanistan can gain from a fruitful relationship, since the economies of both nations are linked intrinsically. Unlike the vast Indian capital inflows into Afghanistan that may disappear with the changing political and economic priorities, the connectivity with Pakistan brings rewards that are tangible and more readily realized.
These benefits may begin at the human level by agreeing on how the thousands of Afghans who found refuge across the Durand line might be safely repatriated. Local industries will be boosted by greater trade alignment, whilst at the macroeconomic level, inclusion in CPEC projects will offer untold opportunities– not least a port for the landlocked.
Pakistan has already demonstrated how to deal with the Taliban and as Pakistan appear to be turning the corner in addressing Covid-19 they will be best placed to assist in the containment of the pandemic whose extent in Afghanistan is unknown.
Pakistan has taken a lot of criticism by the Afghans and Americans for the best part of two decades– some of it justified, but now their military leaders have shown grace and nuance in making a bold trip to reach out to the Afghan leadership and allaying Kabul’s fears. By taking the initiative to break the deadlock and also offering support to the Afghan government, Pakistan is giving a message that it does respect the sovereign power of Kabul.
There has too long lingered a sense of mistrust and injustice between these natural brethren, divided over lines drawn by those who understood little, and lately exploited as proxies and buffers by those who understand even less.
We can hope that General Bajwa’s discussions usher in a new age of cooperation and understanding that all will benefit from, not least the two central protagonists on these early and tentative steps of courtship.
(The writer Robert Gallimore is a former British war veteran and a security consultant with particular expertise in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. He is currently finishing his book on the Pakistan Army to be published next year.
Robert Gallimore is an Oxford & LSE educated former British Army officer who served 17 years in the Welsh Guards with four tours of Afghanistan. He wrote an article on DG-ISI Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed in July 2019 on his appointment to this post. Headed with “Pakistan’s new ISI Chief deserves British support”, Gillimore wrote high about Pak general and applauded his services.)