Muttaqi’s important mission to Pakistan

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Rustam Shah Mohmand

The interim Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, Amir Khan Muttaqi, was in Pakistan last week on a three-day visit. That was the first visit of a high-powered delegation to Pakistan after the Taliban seized power in August this year. 

During the course of his visit, the Afghan foreign minister has held discussions on a wide range of issues with Pakistani officials. The issues of cross border movement, bilateral trade and Afghan refugees as well as other issues impacting relations between the two countries were discussed. The critical issue of non-recognition of the Taliban government came up for discussion as well.

The visit took place in the backdrop of worsening food security, high levels of unemployment, the prospects of millions of Afghans facing starvation and the inability of the Kabul government to pay salaries to public sector employees.  

With such a grim and worrisome picture of the economy, the Taliban government will look towards Pakistan for immediate assistance. They will perhaps not receive the type of response that many in Kabul would expect from Islamabad. The primary reason for this is Pakistan’s reluctance to grant recognition to the new government in Afghanistan. This is, on the face of it, inexplicable. Why should Islamabad seek consensus on an issue that has no other solution? The Taliban government is a reality and it has to be formally acknowledged sooner or later. Why cause a delay that will leave bad impressions?

Muttaqi has been advising Pakistan to have a more down to earth and pragmatic approach to recognizing the new dispensation in Kabul. The Taliban expect other regional countries will soon follow suit. The Troika Plus meeting held in Islamabad on Thursday also considered the various options on the table, with diplomats from Russia, China, US and Pakistan. 

ISLAMABAD: Speaker National Assembly Asad Qaiser om a group picture with hgh level Afghan delegation led by Acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Amir Khan Muttaqi.

There are also other substantive issues that the Afghan foreign minister will have raised with Pakistani authorities during his visit. For one, border management is causing not only deep anxiety but also severe losses to traders on both sides. A large number of agencies are handling the movement of passengers and goods with no clear responsibility for each department. The officers of a transport network, namely the National Logistics cell, are heading the teams which permit the passage of vehicles and passengers. There are long delays in the clearance of goods, leading to demurrage and waste of perishable goods. Afghans entering Pakistan face similar ordeals.

The fencing of the border has disrupted trade on the one hand and adversely affected the movement of relatives who wish to see their loved ones on the other side of the border.

Foreign Minister Muttaqi will seek Pakistan’s assistance in the most urgent problems the regime faces— that of payment of salaries to its employees. The issue of immediate food exports to Afghanistan to stabilize food shortages is also important.

Essentially, Muttaqi’s visit will try to lay the foundations of more durable and mutually beneficial contacts in several sectors like education, communication, healthcare, mineral exploration etc. For that to happen, both countries will have to make new beginnings.

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan discussing Afghan and other regional situations with Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and his delegation.

Taliban have deep suspicions and grievances. They blame Pakistan for abandoning them in the wake of the US war in 2001 but also facilitating the US by allowing its bases to be used to remove their government. The list is long. Muttaqi’s visit will be part of a constant engagement between the two countries that now look forward to a new era where stability in Afghanistan will be advantageous to Islamabad’s ambitions of building up robust trade relations with Central Asian countries, including the fulfilment of a flagship project of importing gas from Turkmenistan.  

The path towards more inclusive, multi-dimensional relations with Afghanistan offers huge opportunities despite the risks. Pakistan has to counter US pressure which seeks to restrict the scope of bilateral relations. Washington is worried that China’s Belt and Road Initiative will be fulfilled if sustainable peace returns to Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s interests must dictate a more realistic approach not oriented towards Washington’s flawed policy in the region. 

(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)