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MALEEHA LODHI
PERSPECTIVE

Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani envoy to the US and UK.

Ghani visit energises Pak-Afghan ties

Both sides agreed to double annual bilateral trade to $5 billion in the next two years.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's recent visit to Pakistan has helped inject a positive dynamic to relations after years of bitterness and mistrust between the two countries. Both sides seized the opportunity offered by the advent of a new government in Kabul to normalise a long troubled relationship. This reset came at a pivotal moment for the region, with the looming withdrawal of most Western combat forces from Afghanistan, and when that country has crucial transitions to negotiate.

At the joint press stakeout with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on 15 November, President Ghani declared that the "enormous steps" taken in the "last three days had overcome the obstacles" in ties of the "past 13 years". While he said this in the context of economic cooperation, it also reflected the positive tenor of dialogue between the two countries on a wide range of issues.

Not only did the visit mark a resumption of military and intelligence cooperation, but it also set out a vision of a future partnership built on multiple pillars and powered by shared economic interests.

This is not to minimise the challenges in the relationship. But with both sides resolved to respond to each other's concerns, they are better placed to address these challenges.

Three aspects of the visit are particularly noteworthy. One, the comprehensive and wide-ranging nature of reengagement — in contrast to the past, when relations often remained stuck on one or another contentious issue. Two, the well prepared and carefully orchestrated visit yielded outcomes or agreement in principle on several issues on different tracks of the relationship. And three, there was no public airing of complaints or grievances by either side before or after the trip, which almost always happened to vitiate the atmosphere on past trips. The visit can be evaluated in three key dimensions of the evolving relationship: security, economic, and regional economic cooperation. On security, the visit had both a symbolic and substantive content. The symbolism of President Ghani's visit to army headquarters in Rawalpindi to lay a wreath at the monument for martyrs signalled an important break from the past. On substance, there were several strands of progress on security issues. Agreement that neither side would allow its territory to be used against the other acquired more practical shape by Pakistan's assurance that its ongoing military operation in North Waziristan would make no distinction among militants and by Afghanistan's offer to launch a clean-up operation against Pakistani Taliban militants seeking refuge in Kunar.

Significantly, the Afghan side agreed in principle to Islamabad's offer to train military officers in Afghanistan and to send them to military institutions in Pakistan. President Ghani also accepted the offer to equip an Afghan infantry brigade. The modalities are to be worked out between the two sides.

Another area of progress on the security front involved Pakistan's proposal for bilateral SOPs for border management. In the Islamabad talks, the Afghan side indicated readiness to finalise these. Even before he came to Islamabad, President Ghani sent another important signal on the security front. This was his decision not to press ahead with an arms deal pursued by his predecessor, under which Delhi was to pay for and supply Russian arms and equipment to Kabul.

Indian analysts interpreted this as a move by President Ghani to "address Pakistan's core concerns and vital interests". Islamabad saw this as a welcome effort by Kabul to strike a better balance in its relations with Pakistan and India.Similarly, the economic dialogue produced several outcomes. Islamabad agreed to remove impediments for the smooth conduct of transit trade. For his part, President Ghani acceded to Pakistan's request for trade access to Tajikistan via Afghanistan. The economic engagement, however, went much beyond transit trade. Both sides agreed to double annual bilateral trade to $5 billion in the next two years and establish a joint business council to promote this. They also committed to begin negotiations for a preferential trade agreement.

Similarly, on regional economic cooperation, there was agreement to strengthen road and rail links and intensify efforts on key trans-regional energy projects.President Ghani also showed keenness to move forward on intra-Afghan reconciliation. It was agreed that his government would first evolve a strategy and framework for a peace process before Pakistan and others would be asked to help facilitate this.

Overall, the visit marked a promising beginning for a new and different phase in Pakistan-Afghan relations. But much needs to be done in the months ahead to build on this positive momentum.

 
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