Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have mostly remained unfriendly, but recent events have caused widening of the gulf between the two neighbouring Islamic countries.
Their distrust of each other has been a constant factor in the relationship. Every bilateral initiative to bridge the mistrust has largely failed and so have efforts by third countries to mediate between them. The recent border clashes in the Chaman-Spin Boldak area resulted in not only casualties on both sides, but also further deterioration in the Pak-Afghan relations.
Pakistan accused Afghanistan of resorting to unprovoked firing on its census team working in the border villages of Killi Luqman and Killi Jehangir and killing seven civilians, including women and children. Afghanistan claimed the census team was illegally working in Afghan villages and blamed the Pakistani security forces for firing across the border and causing casualties.
The serious border incident happened soon after visits by three Pakistani delegations, including two military and one of politicians, to Afghanistan. The visits had raised hopes that serious efforts were underway to defuse the tension and improve relations. In particular, the large delegation of parliamentarians from all major political parties led by National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq sounded hopeful after its high-level meetings in Kabul as it was felt the politicians had a knack of resolving difficult issues. The presence of Mahmood Khan Achakzai and Aftab Sherpao in the delegation had added to its significance as they have maintained good personal terms with President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders and have previously undertaken fence-mending missions to Afghanistan.
The separate recent visits by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt General Naveed Mukhtar and Chief of General Staff Lt General Bilal Akbar to Kabul also promised a breakthrough in defusing tension and improving Pak-Afghan relations as such top level military interaction took place after a while. These visits were also seen as the forerunner of the keenly awaited trip by the Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Afghanistan.
Bajwa had received an invitation to visit Afghanistan when he twice phoned President Ghani, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr Abdullah and the then Afghan Army chief General Qadam Shah Shaheen to wish them New Year on January 1, 2017 and later on January 11 to offer condolences on the devastating bomb explosions in Kabul, Kandahar and Lashkargah that claimed scores of lives, including five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the Governor’s House, Kandahar. Bajwa’s visit hasn’t materialised as one or another happening seems to have led to its postponement. The visit may still happen, but making it productive would be an uphill task considering the complexity of the issues haunting Pak-Afghan relations.
It is worthwhile to note that all these initiatives to improve relations were made by Pakistan. The three abovementioned visits were undertaken by delegations from Pakistan. An invitation to President Ghani to visit Pakistan was turned down. Dr Abdullah has been invited to Pakistan several times, but he has yet to make the trip. The Afghan government is putting up conditions before engaging with Pakistan and making demands that Islamabad is finding hard to meet.
Earlier, mediation by the British government made it possible for Sartaj Aziz, advisor on foreign affairs to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to meet Hanif Atmar, the national security advisor to President Ghani, in London and reach an ‘understanding’ that defused the tension between the two countries and paved the way for Pakistan’s decision to reopen the border at Torkham and Chaman after keeping it closed for 32 days following a wave of Afghanistan-linked terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Though the steps Islamabad and Kabul were supposed to take as part of this ‘understanding’ weren’t made public, the hotline between the military field commanders of the two armies was revived and meetings were planned. The clashes of their forces at Chaman, Pakistan’s border town in Balochistan, and Spin Boldak located in Kandahar province, have put on hold any further progress on improving relations.
The more recent attack by Taliban suicide bombers on the Afghan Army’s 209 Shaheen Corps headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, in which 160 to 200 soldiers were killed further complicated the uncertain security situation in the war-torn country. Once again, some Afghan officials found it easy to scapegoat Pakistan to hide their own security shortcomings by blaming it for its unwillingness to rein in the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban leadership and stop it from launching the annual spring offensive titled “Mansoori” after their slain supreme leader Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor.
Amid all these happenings, a former mujahideen leader opted to choose the path of peaceful politics by giving up armed struggle. Hezb-i-Islami head Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, who briefly served as the country’s prime minister during the mujahideen rule in the mid-1990s, emerged after 20 years in hiding and took up residence in Kabul. However, it was not long before he started generating controversies.
His arrival in the Afghan capital was seen as an important event because he returned as a result of his peace deal with the Afghan government. Used to speaking his mind, he provoked both President Ghani and CEO Dr Abdullah by arguing that Afghanistan’s constitution needed to be amended and by referring to the Taliban as brothers. Hekmatyar also questioned the legality and representative status of the national unity government by stressing that it was formed by the former US secretary of state John Kerry and should not be given respect.
President Ghani disputed Hekmatyar’s argument that Afghanistan’s constitution should be amended by maintaining that this wasn’t the time to make any constitutional amendments. Rather, he said efforts should be made to strengthen and follow the constitution. Hekmatyar had claimed he had a better alternative to the constitution, though he didn’t make his proposals public. Earlier, he had agreed to accept the existing Afghan constitution as part of his peace deal with the government.
CEO Dr Abdullah reacted to Hekmatyar’s assertions by pointing out that the unity government was formed with the votes of the Afghan people and wasn’t imposed on anyone. Also, he argued that Taliban could be the brothers of Hekmatyar, but not of the Afghan people, including him. Hekmatyar responded by alleging that those objecting to his use of term ‘brothers’ for Taliban weren’t interested in peace and were in fact keen that the war in Afghanistan should continue.
Hekmatyar’s role was initially seen as stabilizing the Afghan government as it was its first success in making peace with an armed group and showing the way to the Taliban to seek a possible power-sharing arrangement. However, his utterances are now being seen as destabilizing the delicate power equation in the country and challenging the status quo. Not given to modesty, Hekmatyar is even offering his services to mediate between President Ghani and Dr Abdullah and also to speak on behalf of the Taliban. Nobody is ready to assign him such a role, but this hasn’t stopped Hekmatyar from portraying himself as a peacemaker and statesman. His role in Afghan politics is limited at this stage, but he has inserted an element of uncertainty in the situation at a time when Afghanistan is suffering from high levels of violence and its relations with Pakistan, a country that can play a role in Afghan peacemaking, have hit a new low.