By Imtiaz Gul
Whenever Afghans, Indians and Pakistanis meet, most of them usually trade stereotypes about one another. They regurgitate clichéd narratives and often get bogged down in unpleasant exchanges rooted in history. During a recent meeting in Islamabad between civil society representatives from Pakistan and Afghanistan, fireworks flew across the table as they sat down to mull ways for extricating the bilateral relationship from the current bitter gridlock.
Before the formal meeting, Phillip Barton, the British High Commissioner to Pakistan, had already offered an instructive advice to both — peace is possible only when we are ready to bury the past bitterness and when leaders are ready to take bold decisions. Barton was drawing on his personal experience as an aide to former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair during the Ireland peace process that led to the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
But will Pakistan and Afghanistan ever get to their ‘Good Friday Agreement’? Are leaders and other stakeholders ready to make a new beginning based on mutual trust and a resolve to help their people? Well, as of now, we hardly see any signs of a conscious and concerted movement towards that goal. This is apparently because of too much mistrust, too many fingers in the pie and irreconcilable narratives.
Afghan civil society delegates, for instance, spoke of three schools of thought on Pakistan. The first one — probably in majority — abhors Pakistan as a troublemaking neighbour, responsible for all the ills in Afghanistan. It is the people who believe that the Pakistani establishment “practically hand-picked” Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor and continues to provide support and sanctuary to those killing people in Afghanistan. The second group, a smaller one comprising both political and social leaders and activists, has been extremely critical of Pakistan but has now developed some empathy or sympathy for it. The third group comprises intellectuals, academia and some civil society members who believe that the Pakistani establishment did a lot of damage to Afghanistan but they also acknowledge that Pakistan too has suffered and has legitimate interests in Afghanistan which should be addressed.
The Pakistanis, on the other hand, spoke of Afghanistan as a country that is politically divided, socially fractious and embattled. They thought that outsiders, particularly India, are exploiting the Afghan situation to create problems for Pakistan. They focused on the help that the latter has been providing to Afghans and Afghanistan in general. They also thought that certain lobbies within Afghanistan were fanning anti-Pakistan sentiment disproportionately, and that those elements were the direct financial beneficiaries of the armed hostilities.
The challenge, as it emerged from two days of discussions, was — and will remain — how best to detoxify these narratives and whether they can be reconciled. Fortunately, as manifest in the ensuing Islamabad Declaration on Pak-Afghan Track II, most delegates believe reconciling the two narratives is not impossible. If both sides could recalibrate mutual expectations and ground their narratives in realities, a rational dialogue on issues of bilateral concerns is not impossible because of the cultural, ethnic and historical commonalities that bind both peoples. Delegates from both sides, for instance, unanimously condemn all acts of terrorism on either side of the border. They agreed to act and talk independent of respective establishments. Civil society members urged their respective governments to prioritise security and peace as these are key in providing a conducive environment for mutual cooperation. They underscored trade and education as big connectors which could help transform the prevailing negatives by increasing people-to-people exchanges and confidence-building measures. Delegates also vowed to work for creating space for women in political and cultural processes, and push for cooperation vis-a-vis the economy and on education.
One striking feature of the Islamabad Declaration was the appeal to the media in both countries to refrain from sensationalism, promote a culture of peace and help in changing negative narratives. The delegates agreed that while the media, as an opinion-multiplier, wields considerable influence and promotes peace, it can at the same time also spoil peace. All delegates recommended that the human rights of all Afghans and Afghan refugees must be protected with special emphasis on facilitating their voluntary repatriation to their homeland.
The Islamabad Declaration has emerged as a document of convergence on many issues of mutual concern. The big challenge, however, is to ensure that these vows actually help in detoxing narratives and trumping geopolitics.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies
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