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From Kabul to Kolkata

The recent about-turn by India on expected India-Pakistan talks in New York is a major blow to peace prospects in the region. Before this episode, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, had claimed that Pakistan had indicated its willingness to start negotiations to allow Afghan-India transit trade via Pakistan.

This piece of news kindled a hope that now, with mutual agreement, all concerned parties would agree to open a land route from Kabul to Kolkata. But then the Indian refusal to talk put paid to all hopes.

The rumours started when the American ambassador gave an interview to an Indian newspaper and disclosed that the government of Pakistan was willing to hold talks. This issue has been a major stumbling block in the way to promoting trade in this region. Afghanistan and India – and even the US – want the land route to be opened as early as possible, whereas Pakistan’s official position is that there are other technical and strategic issues that need to be sorted out before any discussions can be initiated to allow transit trade via Pakistan.

Though, at present the US is showing a keen interest in opening Afghan-India trade through the land route, the level of interest can be gauged from the fact that the US had closed its embassy in Kabul in 1989 when the Soviet forces were departing. The Soviet Union had been forced to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the possibility of internecine wars among the so-called Mujahideen groups was looming. When the Soviet forces withdrew, Dr Najeebullah’s secular government was in place. He lacked support from the Russians and the Mujahideen intensified their attacks on Kabul.

The groups included gangs led by warlords such as Gulbudddin Hekmatyar, Ahmed Shah Masud, Abdur Rasheed Dostam, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abdur Rub Rasul Sayyaf, and many others who enjoyed almost unlimited succour from not only the US and other Western powers but also from Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. While the entire decade of the 1990s was consumed by relentless inner fighting among the Mujahideen, the US had closed its shop in Afghanistan and showed least interest in peace or rebuilding in the country. When the Mujahideen exhausted themselves by cutting each others’ throats, the Taliban occupied Kabul in 1996.

Though the Taliban ruled over a battered Afghanistan for five years, hardly two or three countries in the world had recognised their de-facto government as de jure or legitimate. Out of almost 200 countries in the world, just Pakistan and Saudi Arabia not only recognised the Taliban government but also tried to persuade the world community about the legitimacy of the Taliban and how they had restored ‘peace’ in the region. The situation changed after the attacks on America in September 2001. The American embassy in Afghanistan was reopened in January 2002, after the allied forces had toppled the Taliban.

During the past 16 years, 12 American ambassadors have served in Afghanistan with their tenures mostly ranging between one and two years. The current US ambassador, John Bass, has been in Kabul for less than one year. Before joining his office in Afghanistan, he served in Turkey for three years; before that he was in Georgia. During his service in Turkey, the relations between America and Turkey were strained, especially in 2017. In October 2017, when President Erdogan of Turkey ceased to recognise Bass as the US representative in his country, President Trump appointed Bass his envoy in Afghanistan.

After assuming charge in Kabul, Bass has repeatedly claimed that he wants restoration of peace in this region and his priorities also include the opening of a land route between Afghanistan and India via Pakistan. By doing this, he wants to facilitate better communication among the countries of Central and South Asia. There is some truth in his claims because trade plays an important role in promoting harmonious relations among nations. Not only the US, but also China and Russia have stressed the need to open up land routes between Central and South Asia.

China has made it a priority in most of its new projects to link dozens of countries in trade and communication. China has also been encouraging India and Pakistan to improve their relations. At the same time, America, Afghanistan, India, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia are fighting to safeguard and secure their interests. The US is inclined towards India to buttress its position as a counterbalance against China. Afghanistan holds India closer than Pakistan, and there are obvious reasons for that thanks to the huge investments India is making in Afghanistan – whereas the world community perceives Pakistan as a country that promotes terrorism.

After John Bass’ interview, a former foreign secretary of India, Salman Khurshid, also indicated that there were signs of improvement but no major breakthrough should be expected. In the meantime, although Pakistan’s new prime minister and foreign minister wrote letters to their counterparts, the situation doesn’t look promising. Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan have to live in this region peacefully and for that better relations are imperative. In the past seven decades, the three countries have achieved almost nothing by keeping relations strained with their neighbours.

First, Pakistan relied entirely on the US, even fought wars on its behalf and in the process made our own country a battlefield. Now we appear to be solely dependent on China and Saudi Arabia. We have been antagonising Afghanistan, India and Iran. For four decades we helped and supported Afghan refugees but simultaneously played a role in the destruction of their homeland, led by Ziaul Haq, Hameed Gul and many others. During the 1980s and 1990s, there were many analysts who made prescient observations about the negative fallout of helping the Mujahideen and then the Taliban, but our policymakers were not ready to listen to any sane advice.

The same is being done now by not opening up the land routes for transit trade. This issue should not be mixed with other more contentious problems such as Kashmir. We need to start somewhere to begin mutual cooperation. If the three countries keep their stubbornness we may end up paying heavily for something that can be done now much easily. When the new information minister of Pakistan, Fawad Chaudhry, announced that the army and the government in Pakistan are on the same page for establishing peace in this region, he presented a good picture.

Even though relations with neighbours are the domain of the government, in this region – from Afghanistan and India to Iran and Pakistan – political governments dither on decision-making and wittingly or unwittingly hand over authority to security apparatuses, sometimes resulting in perpetual tension in the region. We should remember that only peace can ensure basic facilities such as health, education, livelihood for the common people. The former prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, did tremendous harm to peace in this region by launching an atomic race in South Asia. It has been over 20 years since those fateful detonations of atomic devices in 1998, but the number of atomic weapons is increasing by the day while trade is declining.

It is about time Pakistan seriously considered allowing transit trade between Afghanistan and India. It will not only facilitate our neighbours but will also assuage negative impressions about us. We need to understand that just by blaming other countries we cannot propel our foreign policy any further. It is in the interest of Pakistan, as well as other countries, that we initiate discussions about opening of the land route.

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "From Kabul to Kolkata," The news. 2018-09-23.
Keywords: Political science , Strategic issues , Transit trade , Soviet union , Allied forces , Trump administration , Information minister , Political government , Afghanistan , India , Pakistan , America