Pakistan and Afghanistan’s war of words

Pakistan and Afghanistan, two brotherly Muslim countries and immediate neighbours are on a serious diplomatic collision course after Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib went on an abusive outburst labelling Pakistan a brothel, whilst addressing a gathering in the province of Nangarhar.  The choice of words was in fact insulting for Mohib himself as such rhetoric does not befit a senior state representative.  The diplomatic row that followed the highly regrettable and shameful incident damaged an already volatile relationship between the two countries.

 

Pakistan protested soon after, eroding trust and polluting an environment of good working relations with Afghanistan, especially since things had gotten better after US President Joe Biden announced that all American and allied forces including North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops would completely withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, marking the 20th anniversary of the heinous terrorist attacks on the US.

Islamabad also conveyed that it would not meet with the national security advisor nor conduct any diplomatic or official business with Afghanistan’s top security chief. 

“My blood is boiling over his (Mohib’s) point of view. This person is playing the role of a spoiler,” said Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in an address to party workers in Multan. 

Qureshi also announced further diplomatic snubs, “Afghan national security advisor, listen carefully! No Pakistani will shake hands or engage with you if you don’t stop uttering derogatory remarks against Pakistan…You equate Pakistan with a brothel house, shame on you.”

Before the statement made by Afghanistan’s national security advisor, Kabul and Islamabad were working on improving relations between them. As a part of these efforts,  Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) Chairman Dr Abdullah Abdullah came to Pakistan on a  three day official visit in September last year. This was followed by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s maiden sojourn to Afghanistan in November 2020.

 

More recently Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed travelled to Kabul in May 2021. This vital exchange of visits culminated in peaceful overtures and pledges of political settlements to mutual disputes.

 

In fact, Islamabad had played a constructive role in facilitating torturous negotiation between America and the Afghan Taliban. Further facilitating the inking of the Doha Accords, under which American troop were bound to leave Afghanistan by May 31, 2021 ending the “forever war” and a two decade long occupation, through a face-saving peace agreement

 

Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are due to three fundamental reasons.  Firstly, there is a trust deficit between the leaderships of the two countries. There has been historical enmity ever since Afghanistan used a sole negative vote against Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations in September 1947. Since the establishment of Pakistan in August 1947, this trust deficit has remained intact, partly due to the inability of political pundits and policy makers to eradicate differences and use resources towards benefitting their masses. In addition, the irredentist nature of Kabul’s policies, i.e. believing certain territories in Pakistan historically belong to Afghanistan, have led to Afghan support of Pakhtun and Baloch leaders in Pakistan , further fuelling the fire.

 

But this enmity or lack or trust is not new. Ever since the Cold War era between 1947 and 1999, the two countries have undergone policies and actions that have led them here.  During the Cold war, Pakistan joined the US led alliance against Soviet Russia, whereas Afghanistan supported Russia.  Other historical policies that fuel tensions include the Pakhtunistan issue, leading to transit trade and smuggling of different materials and instruments into Pakistan. More vital series of events that lead to sour relations between Islamabad and Kabul include the overthrow of Afghan president Dr Najibullah’s government, the Afghan civil war and the emergence of the Afghan Taliban.

 

Other factors that contributed to the almost hostile relationship included the post 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan by America and her allies, causing the removal of the Taliban from power, subsequently causing a surge in violence, including suicide attacks, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, the nexus between the Afghan intelligence agencies and anti-Pakistan terrorist groups operating from Afghan soil, and the emergence of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban further fuelled the fire of hate.

 

Lastly, the Taliban’s refusal to attend the Turkey Conference; sticking with a militant solution and their defiance to give due weight to the Afghan government also ballooned the trust deficit

 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in an interview to German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel said, “The names of the various decision-making bodies of the Taliban are Quetta Shura, Miramshah Shura and Peshawar Shura — named after the Pakistani cities where they are located. There is a deep relationship with the state….The US now plays only a minor role. The question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands.”

In recent years, both Kabul and Islamabad have understood the power vacuum that the imminent US withdrawal will leave in Afghanistan.  Pakistan tilts towards the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government leans towards India. New Delhi follows the policy of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Given the hostile nature of relations between the two nuclear powers, India devised plans to disturb Pakistan’s western border and keep Islamabad engaged on two hostile fronts, keeping its arch rival under military pressure.

 

 

Thirdly, the reason for this distrust is the utter failure of the Afghan leadership and its inability to conclude a peace deal, which uses a power sharing formula leading to less violence, and the establishment of a broad based government concentrating on economic development and political sharing. The different stakeholders in Afghanistan failed to accommodate each other or show flexibility. If the Taliban, Afghan government and other factions embrace each other the chances of meddling in Afghan internal affairs would be crushed like Lilliputian grass which perished beneath the feet of two elephants when they embraced each other.

 

 

The diplomatic flare-up indicates that either the Afghan leadership is not serious about engaging with Pakistan or that it is highly perturbed, which leads to such outbursts.  As statespersons, they should realise that pressure tactics might not work because it would be detrimental to the future of relations between the two countries and would push them deep into the shadows of a diplomatic row.

 

 The biggest issue is that at a time when the two countries need each other the most, they are at loggerheads with each other at the cost of the progress and prosperity of their nations. The volatile Afghan environment and economic instability demand that stalwarts and heavyweights of the two countries exercise restrain because a complete breakdown of diplomatic relations will be too harmful for both, Islamabad and Kabul as well as the Afghan peace process.

 

The leaders of the two estranged neighbours should realise the delicacy of the diplomatic crisis, adopt a cautious approach, show statespersonship, use diplomatic skills to put out the fire, embark on diplomatic damage control, resolve their differences and strengthen their relations for the best of both their countries.