Improving relations —Shaukat Qadir

Improving relations with the Afghans is undoubtedly going to be a long process, but it is doable. If it has taken us sixty years to begin to improve relations with India, we can hopefully take lesser time to succeed with Afghanistan

While there is still a noticeable lack of strategic vision or direction in the conduct of our political leaders, it appears they have reached consensus on one fact: Pakistan needs to improve relations with its neighbours.

There is a definite easing of tensions between Pakistan and India. Trade has opened up, across the international border as well as the Line of Control. The tense issue of distribution of the River Chenab’s water has been sorted out, and India has even shown willingness to assist Pakistan through its current economic crunch, despite the fact that India itself is pretty badly hit. We have certainly moved a long way from where we were in 2000!

Two aspects are worth comment in this regard. First is the ‘Long March’ undertaken by the Kashmiri people of Indian-held Kashmir last year. The march enjoyed impressive support throughout Kashmir — it consisted of Kashmiris, including Sikhs and Hindus, not just Muslims, though they were in a majority — and the crowds that thronged to listen to the speakers in all cities, villages and hamlets were unprecedented. It was a peaceful procession, there was no violence from the crowds and the security forces only resorted to the use of force when they decided to arrest the leaders and end the march.

Further, the march was organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, the party that had initiated peaceful protests in 1989, but had deliberately been sidelined by Pakistan. They returned to their own initiative the moment Pakistan ceased to be active in Indian-held Kashmir. Also, while the Pakistani media provided coverage to the march, they refrained from resorting to the traditional India-bashing that such events have provoked in the past.

The second significant event was the indigenous and spontaneous uprising in Indian-held Kashmir a few months ago, opposing the Jammu and Kashmir state government’s decision to allocate a small piece of state forest land to a Hindu temple. The opposition included Hindus and Sikhs, with the result that the state government was forced to rescind its instructions. Once again, unusual wisdom was displayed by the Pakistani government when it refrained from even commenting.

Consequently, not only across the length and breadth of India was there a wave of sympathy for the Kashmiris, an increasing number of Indians again began to question the wisdom of the forcible retention of Kashmir at such expense to the state. Even the international community was left with no option but to criticise Indian policies. Pakistan’s abstention from even a critical comment deprived India of the usual scapegoat!

It certainly seems that the days of apprehension of hostilities initiated by either side are in the past, though there are dinosaurs on either side who will continue to demonise the other country. It will take still some more time to get past the old mindset.

However, just as our concerns for the eastern border are decreasing, those from the western border are mounting. The joint jirga organised by the two governments has approved negotiations with the Taliban. The initial reaction of the Taliban was predictable, that they would not negotiate with ‘American puppets’. But they have sat in on negotiations organised by Saudi Arabia and are bound to come again, since they have little to lose and much to gain.

There is little doubt that our negotiations must begin with and alongside the Afghan government, however much of a lame duck it may be. However, we are all aware that the real opposing factions in Afghanistan are the Taliban and the US-ISAF forces. I have already expressed my concerns on the Afghan government’s avowed intent on negotiation with the Taliban.

However, if this is the course that the US-led alliance favours, Pakistan cannot afford to be excluded from it. The Americans are talking about opening their lines with the Taliban. Since we are without options in embarking on this course alongside our allies, Pakistan must insist that the US join the Pak-Afghan governments’ negotiations with the Taliban. The US must not open separate lines with the Taliban to negotiate deals that may leave us high and dry.

What is more, Pakistan must insist that our Taliban are also a party to the negotiations. If they are excluded and are unwilling to accept terms that might be acceptable to their Afghan counterparts, we are in deeper trouble.

Our Pashtun tribes have traditionally solved their own problems, and must be encouraged to continue doing so. Even as negotiations begin, tribal lashkars intent upon ousting extremists from their midst must continue to receive assistance and encouragement.

Improving relations with the Afghans is undoubtedly going to be a long process, but it is doable. If it has taken us sixty years to begin to improve relations with India, we can hopefully take lesser time to succeed with Afghanistan.

While we are looking westwards, there is another neighbour, Iran, with which our ties were almost fraternal until we failed to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Iran in the 1980s. It is high time we recall that during our war with India in 1965, Iran not only provided us with much-needed oil, but also housed our aircraft. Let us begin to mend fences with Iran as well by supporting its legitimate demands.

The future lies in forming regional alliances. Ours must include China, India, Iran and Afghanistan if we are to secure a future for the coming generations.

The author is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)

Source: Daily Times, 1st November 2008

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