Pakistani Prime Minister in Afghanistan to Ease Tensions, Reduce ‘Mistrust’, Talk Trade and Connectivity

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi will share evidence of cross-border terrorism with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on his visit to Kabul Friday, report The Nation citing diplomatic sources.

(PKONWEB) — Pakistan’s prime minister is in Afghanistan for a day-long visit many see as an effort to ease strained relations between the two neighbors and revive a push for peace talks with the Taliban.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was welcomed by Afghan President Asharf Ghani in Kabul on Friday. The two inspected an honor guard at the Presidential Palace before heading in for meetings.

Ghani has invited PM Abbasi on a state visit to discuss economic, counter-terrorism cooperation, return of Afghan refugees, combating drug production and narco-trade, [the] Afghan peace process and regional political and security situation.

Besides the Afghan president, the prime minister will also meet Afghan Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

Ghani’s spokesman, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, says Abbasi is accompanied by several other top Pakistani officials on the trip, the latest in a series of engagements aimed at reducing mistrust between the two neighbors.

Last month, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif had also extended support to Kabul’s proposed political process seeking to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political group, and said Pakistan is ready for one-on-one talks with the Afghan Taliban.

President Ghani had proposed a ceasefire and release of prisoners as part of a range of options, including new elections involving the militants and a constitutional review as part of a pact with the Taliban to end a conflict that last year alone killed or wounded more than 10,000 Afghan civilians.

In return for Ghani’s offer, the Taliban would have to recognize the Afghan government and respect the rule of law, including the rights of women, one of the priorities for Afghanistan’s international partners.

Pakistan is widely seen as the only party that can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Pakistan says that while it may have held influence over the Afghan Taliban leadership in the past, that is no longer the case.

“Perhaps we had some effect on the Taliban in the past, but now we don’t have that kind of control,” Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua told reporters last month during a visit to the US capital Washington, DC.

Janjua visited Kabul earlier this week to pave the way for Abbasi’s visit, meeting with top Afghan officials alongside senior Pakistani military officials, including Director General of Military Operations Major General Sahir Shamshad Mirza.

The two sides held talks on developing a new bilateral engagement mechanism labeled the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS).

“While some progress was made, substantial issues remain to be discussed in the future,” read an Afghan statement on the meeting.

Slim chance of breakthrough

Given the apparently irreconcilable positions of the two countries, analysts warn that expectations for a breakthrough should not be high for the talks on Friday.

“I do not expect a major breakthrough from the talks – there will be statements and maybe some small initiatives, but ground realities won’t change so quickly,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an Islamabad-based security analyst to Aljazeera.

“Changing the pattern of the relationship requires taking risk on the part of the leadership of both countries… Both talk of peace and both want to fight terrorism, but the problem is that we have no indications that they are actually willing to cooperate with each other.”

The Pakistani diplomatic mission in Kabul celebrated Pakistan’s Day on Thursday attended by more than 300 Afghan dignitaries, academia, civil society, media, and colleagues from Diplomatic Corps & International Organizations and Pakistani Community, according to a statement.

Last month, Saudi Arabia agreed to play leading role bringing the Taliban to peace negotiating table. The Trump administration last month also hinted at considering the Kingdom to act as interlocutor in its relations with Pakistan.

Relations between the two countries have been fraught since since President Donald Trump took office, although they have engaged frequently at the diplomatic level to resolve the crisis.

To bring Pakistan under increasing pressure its erstwhile ally cut more than $1.1bn in military aid, saying its Non-Nato ally was not doing enough against the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network.

Senior US State Department official Alice Wells left Pakistan on Tuesday, after a week-long trip that saw her meet Janjua, as well as Pakistan’s army chief, interior minister, de facto finance minister, and other senior officials.

“In the aftermath of the [President Ghani’s offer of talks to the Taliban], Ambassador Wells noted the growing international consensus on the way forward to achieving peace in Afghanistan and the meaningful role that Pakistan, partnering with the United States, could play in achieving a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan,” read a US statement on her trip.

Analysts say that while Pakistan-US engagements have been positive, there has been little concrete change.

“Pakistan-US relations are not deteriorating further, that is the only progress,” said Rizvi. “They have not gotten worse from the point that they were when President Trump [cut military aid].”

Pakistan has also raised several issues with the Afghan and US leadership regarding the alleged presence in Afghanistan of the TTP, which it says carry out attacks in Pakistan while based in the Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.

To fight that threat, Pakistan has begun building a 12-foot high fence and dozens of border patrol forts along the largely porous 2,600km long border it shares with Afghanistan.

Pakistan is also home to more than 1.39 million Afghan refugees, many of whom have been resident in the country for more than 30 years. Part of Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts have included the repatriation of Afghan refugees, which it says Afghanistan is not doing enough to take back.

In a move aimed at lessening tensions, however, Prime Minister Abbasi will also be discussing proposals to facilitate medical treatment and education for Afghan nationals resident in Pakistan, as well as easing travel and expand trade and transit facilities between the two countries.

Trade, Connectivity

To promote regional economic integration, the two countries are participating in key trans-regional initiatives namely Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and Central Asia – South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000).

Abbasi recently joined Afghan President in Herat to inaugurate the TAPI gas pipeline project.

The two sides are also engaged in undertaking major bilateral rail-road connectivity projects.

Last month, the Pakistan Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce & Industry (PAJCCI) conducted day-long round-table meeting. Participants pointed out that despite having potential of $5 billion, lately trade has fallen from $2.5 billion to $1.4 billion because of bilateral tensions that caused other countries to penetrate in Afghanistan easily, as India has recently acquired a very strong hold both socially and economically in Pakistan’s restive western neighbor Afghanistan, causing double damage to Pakistani economy and neighborly relationship.

Additionally the recent figures are showing a rise in Afghanistan’s trade with Iran (both transit and bilateral) and a corresponding decline in business with Pakistan due to disturbing political ties accruing since long, the participants maintained.

Zubair Motiwala, Chairman PAJCCI told the delegates that Karachi is the most economical route for Transit Trade for Afghanistan; however, Iran’s facilitation to Afghan businessmen is pulling the business away.

He urged both the governments to consider the effects of recent political turmoil over bilateral and transit trade whereby Pakistan-Afghanistan trade has dropped significantly in the last 2-3 years.

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