Afghanistan-Pakistan Issue Cannot be Resolved by Ceremonial Visits

According to ARG, the Presidential Palace, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is scheduled to travel to Afghanistan this week at the official invitation of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. Discussions with Afghan officials on improving and expanding economic and political relations between the two countries, and the Afghan peace process are among the main themes of Khan’s visit to Kabul. This is Imran Khan’s first visit to Afghanistan since coming to power in 2018.

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has invited Imran Khan to visit Afghanistan at least three times. Ghani and Imran Khan have also met closely twice. Their first meeting took place in June 2019 on the sidelines of the 14th Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. One month later, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani went to Islamabad at the official invitation of the Pakistani government and met with the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. The focus of Ghani and Khan’s discussions in these meetings has been on regional connectivity, trade and transit, security and peace.

In his first phone call to Khan after his victory in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, President Ghani wrote on his Twitter page that they had agreed to “overcome the past” and create “a new basis” for political, social and economic relations between the two countries. Later, in his meeting with Khan in Mecca, he expressed optimism about the possibility of a “historic change” in Afghan-Pakistani relations. Their first visit was described by Zalmai Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, as important for regional peace and bilateral relations.

Ghani and Khan have spoken to each other by telephone at least four times in the last two years. Their two phone calls were about their respective victories in the two countries’ elections. A phone call was made before the Afghan presidential election, during which Ghani called on Pakistan to put pressure on the Taliban to hold the election in a safe environment. Ghani and Khan had a recent phone call this month before Abdullah’s visit to Pakistan, focusing on the country’s co-operation on Afghan peace.

Khan has made controversial remarks about Afghanistan at least twice since becoming prime minister of Pakistan. Of course, his remarks came at a time when the Afghan presidential election had not yet taken place and negotiations were underway between the United States and the Taliban. In March 2018, while the National Unity Government was in power in Afghanistan, Khan said that a “new government” was to be formed in Afghanistan in the near future. According to him, this “new government” would represent the entire people of Afghanistan. Of course, he did not explain the mechanism of forming this government. Later in April 2018, he described the National Unity Government, led by Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, as a major obstacle to the Afghan peace process. Khan had said that in his opinion, a possible way to overcome this obstacle is to form an “interim government” and then hold elections in the country. The Pakistani prime minister’s remarks drew a backlash in Afghanistan. Following these reactions, he stated that he did not intend to interfere in the affairs of Afghanistan, and that this was merely “brotherly advice” that he would refrain from giving in the future.

On the other hand, despite these contacts and meetings, the relations between the two countries have so far been accompanied by a kind of misunderstanding and pessimism combined with mutual accusations. Just yesterday, National Defense ministerial nominee Asadullah Khalid, while presenting his agenda in the House of Representatives, declared that Pakistan was still a safe haven for the Taliban and that its support for the group’s war had not been cut off. Earlier, Pakistani military officials claimed that anti-Pakistan militants were in Afghanistan and were attacking positions of Pakistani government forces and facilities from Afghanistan.

In addition to these allegations, the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan have also supported each other’s political opponents. Once, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani expressed support for the protests of the “Pashtun Protection Movement” in Pakistan, which was met with a sharp reaction from the leaders of that country. Similarly, Pakistan has recently opened talks with Afghan political parties and figures that are often critical of the government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hezb-e-Islami, and Latif Pedram, the leader of the National Congress Party, are among the political opponents of the current government who have recently been guests of the Pakistanis. It is now feared that Pakistan, by establishing relations with these Afghan political figures and parties, will change the course of the peace talks in such a way that the role of the Afghan central government is completely nullified.

Of course, what Pakistan expects from the peace talks is what Imran Khan said this November in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine. He said in the interview that Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are to ensure that no future government of Kabul will allow India to invade Pakistani territory. Khan stressed that Pakistan no longer has any other preferences in Afghanistan.