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Old Wednesday, March 07, 2012
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Is a rethink under way?

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh
March 07, 2012

FOREIGN Minister Rabbani Khar`s recent statement to journalists rubbishing, in the words of one journalist, the concept of `strategic depth` and maintaining that if this were being sought it could not be obtained militarily or through proxy war but only by `building trust with the Afghan state`, is welcome.

It is a recognition of the reality of the regional situation. It appears to signal that Pakistan is now prepared to perceive Afghanistan, with which Pakistan shares many bonds and on whose behalf it has assumed many burdens, as a sovereign, independent neighbour. But is this statement and the claim that the `trend` towards the change of policy `isclear` and we have actually `walked the talk` reflected in actual actions? In this exchange with journalists, Ms Khar noted approvingly that PresidentKarzai had talked of Pakistan having a `proactive supportive role and not a proactive leading role`. But then she added her views on the path that Afghanistan should follow: hold a loya jirga to decide the broad framework for peace talks including an intra-Afghan dialogue to see on what conditions they want to run the process of peace and reconciliation, who do they want it to be run by and the time frame in which they want this completed.

This is good advice. I myself have long advocated an intra-Afghan dialogue that brings together various ethnic groups the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and anti-Taliban or at least moderate Pakhtuns to decide on power-sharing arrangements and changes in the constitutional structure that can be offered to the Taliban.

I, however, am a private citizen and can offer such advice publicly. A Pakistani foreign minister has to be much more circumspect in public statements even while being prepared to offer such recommendations in private discussions.

One must assume that since Ms Khar was obviously speaking from a well-prepared brief this suggestion was designedto address suspicions in Afghanistan that Pakistan did not believe that ethnic minorities had a role to play in the reconciliation process.

But does this, important as it may be, constitute `walking the talk`? From the Afghan perspective our contribution should be to persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. After President Karzai`s visit Ms Khar dismissed as ridiculous what she termed as the Karzai demand that Pakistan deliver Mullah Omar to the negotiating table.

She may be right in saying that Pakistan does not know where Mullah Omar is and certainly cannot force him to negotiate with Karzai. What Pakistan can, however, do is be more helpful in identifying and bringing forward such Taliban and Haqqani representatives that have credible positions in the move-ment and are valued as initial negotiating partners by Afghanistan.

Mullah Ghani Baradar, who we have been holding as an honoured guest, is one person Karzai believes is of consequence in the Taliban movement, since at the time of his detention he was perceived to be Mullah Omar`s principal lieutenant. He probably also believes that Ibrahim Haqqani, brother of Jalaluddin Haqqani with whom the Americans held talks arranged by the ISI, could be another interlocutor. If we are really rethinking our position on Afghanistan these are requests we should accede to and urgently.

This is not altruism. We must recognise that reconciliation on whatever terms the Afghans can agree among themselves with such prodding as we and other Afghan well-wishers can provide is as urgent a necessity for Pakistan as it is for our Afghan brethren. We must recognise that suspicions about our intentions trigger reactions by other neighbours of Afghanistan that would retard reconciliation. We must therefore be seen through our concrete actions as being sincere in our protestations of sup-port for Afghan-led reconciliation.

Recent incidents such as urinating by American soldiers on Afghan corpses, and more importantly, the burning of religious texts makes problematic the prospect of agreement on the Strategic Partnership Document that the Afghans have been negotiating with the Americans to govern a limited US presence after foreign troops withdraw.

These incidents have probably also ensured that the Americans will complete their withdrawal by 2013 rather than the originally envisaged 2014 date.

Therefore, this possible source of economic activity and employment generation for Afghans will also disappear faster than anticipated.

Political turbulence in Afghanistan and the expected economic downturn have already increased the flow of eco-nomic refugees to Pakistan.

This refugee trickle will turn into a flood as there is greater unemployment following the reduction inthe size of the Afghan National Security Forces from 358,000 to 230,000, by retrenchment in firms that currently provide security at ongoing projects and by the halt of construction and other economic activities generated by the foreign troops` presence.

It is my estimate that unless we take precautionary measures we will have in the next two to three years some two million economic refugees from Afghanistan. If there is no reconciliation, the mix of economic and political refugees will climb to five million to add to the numbers already here.

Even as we work with Karzai to promote reconciliation and increase our diplomatic efforts to win support from others for such reconciliation, we must do more to secure our borders against the influx of refugees. For starters the biometric system must be enforced for all travellers between Afghanistan and Pakistan across Torkham and Chaman.

We must also ensure that we exercise greater control over the refugee camps even if we cannot close them down.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Is a rethink under way? | ePaper | DAWN.COM
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