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Can Pakistan and Afghanistan Make Peace in 2017?

By Shazar Shafqat

Recently, militants in Afghanistan have been on a killing spree. An all-encompassing chaos is gripping the country’s streets, affecting everyone from diplomats to civilians. A recent report states at least 12 teachers were kidnapped by suspected Islamic State fighters from the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Earlier this month, several Afghan cities were bombed almost simultaneously, including the capital city Kabul. The violence claimed more than 50 lives. Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary for the Taliban insurgents behind the attack.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s recently appointed chief of army staff, denied the accusation. In a phone call with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Bajwa claimed that all safe havens for terrorists in Pakistan have been destroyed. He also stressed that the blame game would not help either of their countries. Ghani thanked the general and agreed that they must work together for peace.

The authorities in Pakistan were quick to point fingers at Afghanistan after the Peshawar school attack of Dec. 16, 2014. Afghan officials blamed the attack on the Pakistani Taliban. The tension was so volatile that thousands of Afghan refugees living in the country fled to escape harassment.

The Pakistani public believes the refugees are behind the rise in terrorist attacks, a myth that has been disproven by documents from the Directorate of Prosecution and Department of Police in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The report showed that out of 10,549 reported cases during the past two and a half years, only 134 have been linked with displaced people from Afghanistan.

At the 2016 Heart of Asia Conference, Ghani seemingly joined forces with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to blast Pakistan for harboring terrorists.  The president insisted that he did not want to make unfounded accusations, but went on to say, “Some still provide sanctuary for terrorists. As a Taliban figure said recently, if they had no sanctuary in Pakistan, they wouldn’t last a month … I want clarifications on what is being done to prevent the export of terror.” This is quite a departure from the beginning of Ghani’s presidency. In 2014 he visited Pakistan and spoke with several officials, with both sides hoping for a fresh start in their relationship.

What both countries fail to understand is that the issue of cross-border terrorism is a regional one. The presence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other Central Asian outfits make it even more complicated. Afghanistan takes a hawkish stance considering the presence and operational capability of the Haqqani network in Pakistan, while Pakistan also has genuine concerns regarding safe sanctuaries available to the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan. Both countries need to engage in intelligence sharing in order to eradicate the menace of terrorism within their borders. A stalemate is only going to add to the already chaotic situation.

Considering the current wave of terrorism in Afghanistan, both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to identify and address root causes. Pakistan should exert its influence on Afghan Taliban and persuade them to become part of the political process rather than resorting to violence. In the meantime, Afghan officials should limit fiery and virulent rhetoric against Pakistan. Doing so will help both the governments engage in peace talks in a more peaceful and favorable environment. Trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan should continue. Energy projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia 1000 (CASA-1000) can break the ice. These projects are mostly funded by the Asian Development Bank, and, if successfully implemented, can change the face of energy access in South Asia. All the stakeholders, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, need to get on board. Currently, enmity between these countries may jeopardize region-wide projects. The potential benefit for their populations, however, may be enough to persuade both Pakistan and Afghanistan to cooperate. Promoting economic prosperity by engaging in trade can lighten moods on both sides of the Durand Line.

If the peace process is to prevail in 2017, then discussion and negotiation are the only way forward. But for the time being, the blame game seems to be there to stay. Accusatory rhetoric plays well among the public in both countries, and Pakistani and Afghan authorities by now are very good at tapping into this popular opinion.

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Shazar Shafqat is a security analyst, focusing on Pakistan’s security environment, Middle Eastern politics and security issues, counter-terrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His work is regularly featured in media outlets including The Diplomat, Middle East Eye, Asia Times, The Nation, Daily Times, and more. 

[Photos courtesy of Muhammad Imran Saeed and Wikimedia Commons]

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