Afrah Jamal |
Pakistan and Afghanistan have history. And it is not all good. They have a shared border – though its legality has been contested. They also managed to forge a united front against the Soviets and achieved the impossible. It was a rare moment of solidarity and teamwork.
The final round of the Cold War fought in the badlands of Afghanistan altered the timeline since then and as the Afghan state veered off course – the impact was felt on neighboring nations. It led to an influx of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the emergence of the Taliban, the fracturing of the Afghan socio-political structure and opened a breach in the global security.
All this is in the past.
Pakistan and Afghanistan may have been brothers in arms with shared borders and traditions and historical ties, but despite their time spent in the trenches, Pakistan’s economic value as a trade portal for a landlocked region or its place as host to millions of refugees and the biggest shelter for displaced people, according to UNHCR – the time has come to reset the counter and adjust to the new reality.
Back in the ‘Trenches’ on Opposite sides of the ‘Wall’
It encourages both parties to keep the collective well being of their youth bulge a priority, pledge support for sustained efforts at dialogue, diplomacy and development policies and ensure that their mission stays on track.
There is a need to establish fresh avenues of cooperation in a charged landscape that continues to simmer due to the presence of NATO forces, raging insurgencies, new trade partners, foreign agendas and a laundry list of grievances. Both sides need to consider a parley though the walls have gone up literally and figuratively but not every structure is meant to be taken as a barrier. Not the fence along a porous border, which at the moment seems to impede the free exchange of ideas and restricts movement but is also intended to safeguard both sides from neither cross-border terrorism; nor the reparation of undocumented Afghans after nearly four decades of hospitality and a free run of the land.
Amid the deepening divide, and a looming crisis, there have been signs of a thaw in relations. But even as both nations embark on the bridge building expedition, pre-existing platforms of common interest could allow them to recognize the win-win side of such ventures, along with the necessity of forging lasting partnerships, of recapturing a glimmer of the Cold War era camaraderie and honoring the familial ties that bind people across the Durand Line.
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The Migrant Side of the Story
Heated exchanges and accusations may fly on both sides yet, once the dust settles and tempers cool, Pakistan emerges as a training camp for medical professionals, Afghan soldiers, and cricketing legends; it sponsors education, is a breeding ground for ideas and a sanctuary for the millions of displaced refugees who can now claim legal status and live in relative freedom. Since 1979, a wave of an estimated 1.3 million documented Afghans with 700,000 illegals entered Pakistan. They brought their rich musical heritage and the departure of gifted Afghan musicians and artisans was keenly felt by the Pashtun community on Pakistan’s side.
The past is illuminating – it serves as a reminder about the transient nature of alliances and fluctuating strategic interests; Pakistan, U.S and Afghanistan were allies in the Cold War and now struggle to find common ground in the second iteration of the conflict.
Because of the drugs and guns that flowed through the open borders along with militants who sought havens, the post 9/11 reality necessitated a review of old policies. Even as the reparation process commenced and unregistered refugees were deported, a new Afghan refugee registration policy came into play with one million due to be registered by Jan 2018. The issuance of an Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) meant to legalize their status also offers protection bringing a semblance of normalcy to a war weary nation that has only seen conflict and bloodshed. Some 400,000 undocumented migrants have been registered thus far.
The immigrant’s tale continues to capture the imagination and the services of Aqeela Asifi – a Pakistan based Afghan and winner of 2015 Nansen Refugee Award and Global Teachers Prize 2016 arrived in Pakistan in 1992 and took up the mantle of girls’ education becoming the first teacher of a refugee village in Punjab. She decided to donate the award money to her pet project to support her vision for empowered women, and in 2017, a collaboration with Punjab government upgraded the status of her modest little venture making it the first ever high school in the refugee village in Mianwali.
This along with the scholarship programs launched for Afghan students captures the myriad ways the migrants’ life remains intertwined with the social fabric of their adopted homeland. Afghanistan’s shaky infrastructure and security woes keep its people dependent on the hospitality of their Pakistani hosts and ensuring their well-being remains a priority despite the ongoing crisis.
The Afghan students residing in bordering villages of Afghanistan enrolled in schools located in the borderlands of Pakistan were also issued with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) cards and do not require visas or passports to cross over. It keeps their movement restricted within Torkham but ensures that education of Afghan youth does not become collateral damage in the political standoff.
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Providing a Support System for Afghan Security Forces – a Base for Cultural Activities
In this dreary backdrop, a war has been outsourced while regional players struggle to keep up with the conflicting agendas and unfurling web of intrigue. Where the Taliban are far from defeated and have eyes on the seat of power and a lucrative drug trade in the belt.
In 2015, six army cadets became the first batch of Afghans to be enlisted in the prestigious PMA – Pakistan Military Academy. Since President Ghani’s predecessor had sent military personnel for training to India, the change symbolized a turning point in the relationship. Despite Kabul’s pivot towards Delhi, dispatch of Indian wheat via Iranian ports, establishment of an air freight corridor and development aid to prop up a war ravaged economy – Afghanistan’s proximity with Pakistan makes it impossible to ignore given the spillover effect of the war and the urgent need to man the gates and clear and hold the land. As part of boosting bilateral security cooperation, offers of extending that training to the Afghan military and LEA stand.
Several Afghan sporting stars that emerged from Pakistani refugee camps later went on to take their war torn nation to glory. Retired Pakistani cricketing legends like Younis Khan have joined in the crusade and appear keen to embrace their new role as the coach of Afghan cricket team. The first two Afghan doctors to be trained in Pakistan via Afghan Research and Education Fund, the American Academy of Neurology and the Agha Khan University were part of a two-year training program at AKU. The collaborative venture between Pakistan and Afghanistan has lowered the incidence of polio. And the increased frequency of visits and a commitment to a joint strategy between the two armed forces has raised the expectations for an end to the standoff.
Reality Check for the Afghan Dream
While there are many such ‘firsts’ and permit a moment of cautious optimism – the combustible nature of Afghanistan make South Asia’s conversion into a regional powder keg a real possibility. Kabul has a long road to recovery ahead and given the financial aid pouring in, commercial activity picking up, trade corridors in the pipeline and investors gearing up to explore the potential of a post ISIS, Taliban Afghanistan – they may be tempted to buy in the Afghan dream of a prosperous land capable of standing on its own feet, free of occupation and radical thought.
At the moment, Kabul’s upgraded military reportedly leans on American personnel since several of their own people have gone AWOL, sought asylum and live in fear of the Taliban / Daesh. Their security forces have been decimated and with foreign funded NGOs, including the Red Cross shuttering its services, their fortunes look dire.
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The collaborative venture between Pakistan and Afghanistan has lowered the incidence of polio. And the increased frequency of visits and a commitment to a joint strategy between the two armed forces has raised the expectations for an end to the standoff.
In this dreary backdrop, a war has been outsourced while regional players struggle to keep up with the conflicting agendas and unfurling web of intrigue. Where the Taliban are far from defeated and have eyes on the seat of power and a lucrative drug trade in the belt. Dealing with domestic terror poses a monumental challenge combined with corruption in the Afghan government ranks and a foreign military in the backyard that has already logged 16 years in the barren wasteland, with no intention of leaving without their promised victory march.
Implications of Pivoting towards India
Uncertainty may reign, but President Ghani is set on pursuing new trade routes and alliances and ultimately reduce its dependency on Pakistan. And, as his country aligns itself with a different pack, and shuns monetary aid from old partners since the Afghan coffers are overflowing thanks to the donors’ generosity, Pakistan’s place on the totem pole has visibly shifted.
President Ghani recently spoke out against boarding the CPEC train. It may appear that Ghani’s vision of economic independence is at odds with Pakistan’s efforts at establishing connectivity with a wider network, pitting the two nations against each other. The impression that they are on opposing teams and must outwit each other to reach the Promised Land needs to be dispelled.
Islamabad vs, Kabul – Antagonists racing towards a common Goal
But this is not a race to the finish line and the winner does not get to take all. They are not competitors with nothing to offer or learn from each other. The brick and mortar wall may divide the Pashtun tribesmen but cannot separate the Afghan people from pursuing education, seeking healthcare or embarking on cultural exchange programs. The wall is merely a precaution given to the inherent dangers in leaving the badlands unattended especially since the Taliban controlled territory has risen to 13% from 11% (2017) in Afghanistan, as has their ability to strike at will. An unmanned 700 km porous border that stretches to the south is still in need of securing and remains a cause for concern given the specters of safe havens that refuse to go away.
The immigrant’s tale continues to capture the imagination and the services of Aqeela Asifi – a Pakistan based Afghan and winner of 2015 Nansen Refugee Award and Global Teachers Prize 2016 arrived in Pakistan in 1992 and took up the mantle of girls’ education becoming the first teacher of a refugee village in Punjab.
The past is illuminating – it serves as a reminder about the transient nature of alliances and fluctuating strategic interests; Pakistan, U.S and Afghanistan were allies in the Cold War and now struggle to find common ground in the second iteration of the conflict. It has a steep learning curve where Kabul must learn the fine art of balancing Delhi and Islamabad, without offending one or alienating the other while watching Washington’s new strategy unfold. And Pakistan searches for ways to engage its western neighbor on a one to one basis. To that end, bilateral groups comprising of ‘intelligence officials, military officers, diplomats, border management, trade, refugees and political level’ have been devised and tasked with keeping the peace and ensuring key issues do not get sidelined. That the Pakistani delegation and Afghan counterparts managed to make significant headway in the midst of the madness is an achievement in and of itself.
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With all the bad blood and hostility, Afghanistan cannot overlook its immediate neighbor that faces the same enemy and similar terrain. That serves as home to millions of Afghans; has deep bonds of friendship with the people and the decades of good will under its belt. Its recent successes in the field of counterinsurgency, attempts to develop a sustainable model to check extremism and nurture its moderate side to starve out the radicals only add to its relevance.
Pakistan is also playing for higher stakes in some ways since it’s a nuclear armed nation in a volatile neighborhood and must guard against nuclear Armageddon. With all the missteps and failed ideologies (strategic depths), Kabul’s angry outbursts and statements meant to appease Modi’s India, and resistance to border management designed to shield both sides, their paths will always converge at some stage.
But it may not always be commerce or culture that unites the two. Regional security and stability demands their immediate attention for now and highlights the need to invest in secure channels of communication. It encourages both parties to keep the collective well being of their youth bulge a priority, pledge support for sustained efforts at dialogue, diplomacy and development policies and ensure that their mission stays on track.
Afrah Jamal is a freelance writer. She is the editor of “In Conversation with Legends – History in Session”. She had also been writing for Daily Times, Lahore, and was the editor of Social Pages, Karachi. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.