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Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan
Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Winning the War on Polio in Pakistan
Winning the War on Polio in Pakistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 262 / Asia

Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan

As Pakistan seeks to consolidate its fragile democracy, it should seize the moment to improve relations with its Afghan neighbour. Its biggest challenge comes from within. The civilian government has to regain control over national security and foreign policy from the military.

Executive Summary

Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have been largely characterised by mutual mistrust and devised through a narrow security prism. While it will require considerable effort to end deep-seated animosity, both countries share close ethnic, linguistic, religious and economic ties. Longstanding Afghan migration to the territories that now compose Pakistan makes them an integral part of Pakistani society. Yet, military-devised interventionist policies, based on perceived national security interests, including support for Afghan, mainly Pashtun, proxies, have marred the relationship. The incoming Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has offered to expand bilateral ties, providing Islamabad fresh opportunities to improve the relationship. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has responded positively, but the Pakistani military and civilian leadership’s preferences toward Kabul are diverging further as Afghanistan’s transition draws closer. By recalibrating relations toward economic ties and seeking solutions to the presence of millions of Afghan refugees on its soil, Pakistan could engage more constructively with its neighbour.

Sharif’s top priority, stabilising a faltering economy, will be elusive in the absence of security and hampered by an unstable neighbour; hence his government has reached out to Afghanistan, hoping to reduce bilateral tensions and contribute to post-transition Afghanistan’s stabilisation. The Pakistani military high command, however, continues to hedge its bets, either actively or tacitly supporting a resurgent insurgency, which threatens to undermine Afghanistan’s transition.

Since the Taliban’s 2001 ouster, Afghan insurgents have found safe havens in Pakistan. The command and control of the three main militant groups – Mullah Omar’s Shura (council), Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami and the al-Qaeda-linked Haq­qani network – are based in and operate from Pakistan. These havens have and could continue to undermine Afghanistan’ efforts to confront the insurgency after the security transition in December 2014.

Pakistan’s interventionist policies are also undermining the peace at home. The Afghan insurgents are aligned with home-grown Pakistani tribal extremists, who in turn are part of a syndicate of sectarian, regional and transnational jihadi groups. With the support of their Afghan counterparts, Pakistani tribal extremists are challenging the state’s writ, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, bordering on Afghanistan. Military-led initiatives to counter such threats, based on appeasement deals or heavy handed-military operations against Pakistani Taliban factions, have proved ineffective.

The opening of spaces for Pakistani extremists, using their ties with their Afghan counterparts, to attack Pakistani targets from safe havens in Afghanistan, underscores the importance of ending all support, direct or covert, to Afghan proxies. Yet, much depends on the ability of civilian governments in Pakistan to wrest control over national security and foreign policy from the military in a fragile democratic transition.

Since Pakistan’s democratic transition began in 2008, two successive governments have wanted to mend fences with Afghanistan, including through a policy of non-intervention, failing in the face of military intransigence. The first ever transfer of power from one elected government to another, after the May 2013 elections, provided an opening to strengthen civilian control over national security and foreign policy, including in the relationship with Afghanistan. However, ongoing anti-govern­ment demonstrations, begun in August 2014, led by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan and cleric-cum-politician Tahirul Qadri, have strengthened the military’s ability to extract concessions from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, particularly regarding one of the most sensitive regional relationships, that with Afghanistan.

Yet, there are still opportunities, not least because of the new government in Kabul that is reaching out to Pakistan, for Sharif to reset the relationship by expanding ties beyond a narrow security focus. Until the democratic transition stabilises, enabling the government to end tacit or direct support for Afghan proxies, Sharif should work with Kabul to expand economic ties, including by upgrading and expanding infrastructure, including road and rail links connecting the two countries, reducing cumbersome security measures, combatting corruption and beginning talks on a free-trade agreement. The two countries would also benefit from easing cross-border movement and providing economic opportunities to their citizens. Improving the relationship would, however, require Pakistan to ease the uncertain and insecure lives of the millions of Afghan refugees on its territory. Islamabad should sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Until it does, it should enact a national law for refugees that codifies long-term protections and rights, and respects the right of non-refoulement.

Islamabad/Brussels, 28 October 2014

A Pakistani health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Rawalpindi on 9 December 2014. AFP/Farooq Naeem
Report 273 / Asia

Winning the War on Polio in Pakistan

Pakistan remains the greatest impediment to a polio-free world. The link between the disease and Islamist anti-immunisation campaigns is clear but without an appropriate political response. The authorities must tackle extremist networks, step up health services, and make sure that health workers are safe.

Executive Summary

As the world marks Polio Day on 24 October, Pakistan remains the greatest impediment to a polio-free world. It has more cases than any other country, reflecting dual policy failures: to prioritise citizens’ health and to curb violent extremism. Despite signs of impressive improvement, with cases declining fast, there is a real risk of another spike unless steps are taken to fully reverse years of neglect to public health services. The prevalence of the disease and conflict is closely interlinked. With militant opposition to immunisation and attacks on polio workers undermining eradication efforts in the volatile FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) agencies, a coercive, military-led strategy should be replaced by a civilian-led approach that encourages community buy-in, respects rights and meets the needs of a marginalised population. Protecting and supporting polio workers and more closely involving communities in eradication efforts should be top priorities. The government should also remove misgivings about the vaccine, created by the anti-immunisation propaganda of Islamist parties and militant sympathisers.

With violent extremists attacking polio workers, particularly targeting women, in FATA, parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Balochistan provinces and Karachi, hundreds of children contracted the disease in 2014. Despite the relative decline in extremist violence, attacks continue, underscoring the importance of protecting the polio workers. Many parents have refused to immunise their children, either fearing militant reprisal or misled by Islamist parties and some mullahs into believing that the vaccine is an un-Islamic Western plot to harm the children.

Having already spanned the porous border with Afghanistan, the only other country where it is endemic, polio could again become a global health risk if its spread is not halted in Pakistan.

While the decline in cases, from 328 in 2014 to 38 as of October 2015, can be partly attributed to increased vaccination coverage of populations fleeing military operations in FATA’s North Waziristan, South Waziristan and Khyber agencies, these gains could prove fragile. Militant networks have yet to be dismantled, and, as demonstrated by the September attack on an airbase in Peshawar, their capacity to regroup, reorganise and resume strikes against the state and citizens remains intact.

The government has taken some steps after the 2014 wake-up call, when polio cases increased dramatically, stoking international concern about the disease’s possible spread beyond Pakistan. By the end of the year, the government and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – a public/private initiative launched in 1988 by national governments and spearheaded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to eradicate polio – had initiated measures to overhaul the eradication program, including through more comprehensive security assessments, better planning and improved coordination and communication between all actors.

Innovative methods, such as reducing reliance on police protection, instead using communities to protect vaccinators and employing vaccinators from within those communities, are being tried on a limited scale but with considerable success in some cities, including Pashtun-majority areas in Karachi that host scores of FATA internally displaced persons (IDPs) and some FATA agencies. However, efforts to convince many mullahs and Islamist leaders to stop misleading communities by depicting the vaccine as un-Islamic and a health risk have had mixed results at best; many parents still refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated

It is essential to maintain momentum. The key test will come in May 2016, when, at the end of the current low-transmission, relatively cool season, the temperature begins to rise and with it the risk of the virus spreading. It will be possible then to judge whether vaccination teams are reaching every child under five. If Pakistan is to make a durable transition out of its current polio-endemic status, it should complement eradication successes with wider routine immunisation coverage, through the Expanded Program on Immunisation (EPI), and significantly improved basic health care and sanitation. In the conflict zones, such as FATA, this requires better governance and security. Success countrywide will also depend on the government’s willingness to partner with civil society and local and international NGOs to protect children from contracting a disease that has been eradicated in most of the world.