Mixed messages as Kabul asks Pakistan to stop border shelling, then agrees to strategic partnership.
Talk of a strategic agreement with Pakistan has scandalised Afghans who believe their southern neighbour wants to undermine rather than help their conflict-torn country.
The pact came up apparently out of the blue during a meeting between Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York at the end of September. They agreed to instruct their foreign ministers to work together to draft a final agreement by the end of 2013.
At the meeting, Zardari told Karzai that Islamic militancy, terrorism and the drugs trade were common challenges on which their two countries must cooperate. Many Afghans, however, suspect the Pakistani authorities of covertly backing the Taleban and other insurgent groups in order to prolong instability.
In recent months, their sense of anger has been increased by wave upon wave of cross-border shell and rocket fire targeting the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar. Dozens of civilians in these border areas have been killed, and thousands forced to leave their homes. ( IWPR's report Afghans Say Pakistan Behind Cross-Border Fire looked at this issue.)
In late September – just as the two presidents were holding their meeting – residents of Nangarhar’s Lalpur and Goshta districts received news of an impending bombardment. They ignored the warning, but thousands then had to flee when the shelling started.
The Afghan government has faced mounting criticism at home for seeking a diplomatic solution rather than ordering a direct military response. (See also Heads Roll as Afghan Parliament Questions Defence Failures.) Karzai and his foreign minister Zalmay Rasul complained about the shelling during the United Nations assembly. When the Afghan defence and interior met tribal elders in Nangarhar on October 1, they again said diplomacy was the preferred approach.
In the last year, Afghanistan has signed strategic pacts with the United States and India, but Pakistan is a different matter altogether. Karzai’s critics say that with the cross-border shelling and many other issues still in dispute, it is hardly the time to be talking about strategic cooperation.
"We have signed many agreements… but Pakistan has not delivered on even one per cent of its commitments, nor has it acted for the good of Afghans. It would do better to meet these prior commitments," parliamentarian Aryan Yun told IWPR. "Pakistan has shown its true colours to the Afghan people over the last 30 years. There’s no need to sign a strategic agreement with it now."
Meeting on October 2, Afghan members of parliament denounced the idea, saying it would be completely wrong to sign this kind of agreement with a country which behaved so aggressively towards their state.
"Instead of complaining to the UN Security Council and submitting documents and other evidence of Pakistani interference, Karzai has rushed to sign a pact with the Pakistanis,” said Sayed Fazel Hussein Sancharaki, spokesman for the opposition National Coalition. “Karzai has not only trampled on the country's national interests; he has destroyed Afghan pride in the process."
Sancharaki said the president was seeking to bolster his own position at any cost, and was prepared to do a deal with Islamabad in return for its support in the 2014 presidential election in which he would seek “to bring one of his relatives to power".
"It would be ridiculous to sign such a pact unless Pakistan was prepared to work honestly with Afghanistan and respect its national interests and territorial integrity," he added.
By contrast, the Truth and Justice Party gave the plan its official backing, though it wanted numerous conditions written into any agreement.
Speaking on September 30, party spokesman Hamidullah Faruqi said these terms should stipulate that “Pakistani military attacks on Afghan soil come to an end… and that nests of terrorism inside Pakistan, which have fought against Afghan interests for the last 30 years, are eliminated."
Karzai’s spokesman Siamak Herawi attempted to dispel the anger by saying the strategic agreement was just an idea.
"This is no more than a proposal. There’s no written blueprint for this pact,” he told IWPR. “Parliament, civil society and the Afghan nation will be kept informed, and the content of the pact will be scrutinised by experts. So in general, a decision will be made once a general consensus has been achieved."
Despite being approached by IWPR several times, the Pakistani embassy in Kabul refused to give an interview on the issue.
Political analyst Abdul Satar Sadat said that in the current circumstances, talk of a bilateral treaty was premature.
“The pact will be signed in the midst of a conflagration, it isn’t certain whether it will survive the flames," he said.
Sadat said a lot of work needed to be done to build confidence at a political level, and one issue would certainly have to remain off-limits – the Durand Line, the contentious and poorly-defined Afghan-Pakistani boundary originally established in 1893. Islamabad would like to see the line formalised as the official frontier, but Kabul has never recognised it.
“If the Durand Line question is mentioned in the pact, it definitely cannot be signed," Sadat said.
He noted that greater trust would also have to exist at grassroots level. As an example of Afghan mistrust of Islamabad’s intentions, he recalled one case where army personnel were offered training scholarships in Pakistan.
“No one was prepared to go, except for two army bandsmen who wanted to learn the trumpet,” he said.
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s editor in Afghanistan.