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Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan
Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
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

Op-Ed / Asia

National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Originally published in The Diplomat

Pakistan’s central government is all-in on CPEC. But at key points, local communities are resisting.

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general election on July 25, most political parties stand united in their belief that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will transform Pakistan’s ailing economy. In May, Pakistan’s ambassador to China asserted that “regardless of any political change in Pakistan, our commitment towards the successful completion of CPEC will not change.”

But if political support at the national level appears unwavering, local opposition is growing over the lack of consultation and concerns regarding the inequitable distribution of the prospective benefits. In few places is this more noticeable than the southern Balochistan fishing town of Gwadar, the entry point of the corridor and a microcosm of the center-periphery tensions elsewhere that threaten CPEC’s implementation.

An Ambitious Vision

Aiming to develop a “growth axis and development belt” between China and Pakistan, CPEC could involve investments of some $60 billion. The corridor connects Gwadar, in the southwestern province of Balochistan, to China’s Xinjiang region via a 2,700 kilometer route through the mountainous terrain of Gilgit-Baltistan in northernmost Pakistan .

For China’s and Pakistan’s foreign policies, the potential payoffs are clear. CPEC is a flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a geopolitical ambition to develop trade and infrastructure with over 60 economies across Eurasia, Africa, and beyond. For Islamabad, CPEC brings the hope of not only economic dividends but also potentially a geopolitical reconfiguration. Some Pakistani strategists believe deepening ties to China will offset rising U.S. diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at ending Islamabad’s support to Afghanistan- and India-oriented militant proxies.

CPEC’s prospective economic benefits are forecast to materialize slowly across Pakistan between 2017 and 2030. But policy planning has been opaque, omitting details of how development projects will actually impact local economies, infrastructure and business. An urban planner and expert on Gwadar said the government’s plan lacks even “cosmetic consultation.” As more details slowly emerge, local alarm is growing about what CPEC will bring to Balochistan.

Stirring Local Unrest

In Gwadar, the Arabian Sea town in southern Balochistan that CPEC aims to transform into a bustling commercial port, inner city locals fear displacement over government plans to expropriate land, bulldoze the old city, and resettle residents. The state-led land grab is estimated to claim at least 290,000 acres to make way for development, in large part through ultimatums issued to local residents. Those who refuse to sell land or property could simply have it seized by the federal government and would likely face forced resettlement.

Local livelihoods also appear to be under fire. Fisher folk, whose daily catch provides them just enough to feed their families, have on occasion been denied access to the sea and could face the permanent closure of Gwadar’s jetty. Unskilled workers resent exclusion from the port’s construction, as federal authorities favor importing labor from other provinces. One official in Gwadar said that “the plan seems to be to make life so miserable for the residents that they leave on their own.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions.

Nor is it clear that those who stay in Gwadar will reap the fruits of Chinese investment. At the start of the project, Pakistan transferred leasing rights for Gwadar port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company, sealing a deal that grants China 91 percent of the port-generated profits and Islamabad just 9 percent, while denying Balochistan’s provincial government any revenue. With such lopsided terms, China is under minimal pressure to ensure local prosperity.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions. Some Pakistani security analysts see China’s development plans as a mask for broader geopolitical ambitions. In Gwadar, they perceive Beijing as less interested in developing a transport link to Xinjiang or a commercial waystation to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf than eventually transforming the port into a military or naval base, another in a string of installations dotted across the Indian Ocean that affords Beijing the strategic initiative vis-à-vis regional rival India.

Regardless of China’s true intentions, the net result for locals is the same. Economic marginalization is stirring local dissent, which could lead to significant security risks. Balochistan’s insurgency has long rested on popular demands for greater political and economic autonomy. The failure to provide Gwadar the benefits of CPEC development is heightening hostility toward Islamabad and Beijing, and affording Baloch insurgents a chance to expand their outreach and recruit disgruntled locals. Since 2017, Baloch militants have already killed scores of Pakistanis employed on CPEC projects and future attacks might target Chinese construction workers or Chinese nationals living in Pakistan.

A Chance to Reverse Course

Instead of addressing the causes of this dissent, Pakistani authorities have opted to respond through crackdowns of anti-CPEC protests, an overbearing security presence, and harassment and intimidation of local residents. The best chances for the country’s stability – not to mention CPEC’s success in Gwadar and elsewhere – lie in giving provinces and communities a voice in shaping development projects.

In particular, the government should make greater efforts to consult communities and experts regarding the impact of development and reconsider the ongoing policy of rampant land expropriation. It should also put in place measures to ensure the employment of local labor on construction projects to ensure that they reap the dividends of outside investment. Chinese and Pakistani companies, too, ought to take similar measures to assess the risks associated with controversial development initiatives.

Whatever the result of Pakistan’s elections, the new parliament should seize the opportunities of a fresh mandate by informing a new government policy. That policy should have the well-being of Pakistani citizens at its heart, rather than treating it as expendable in the pursuit of mega-development.