Is the Pakistan-Afghan relationship hostage only to the motivated approaches of the respective political establishments and bureaucracies or does it suffer also because of our deficiencies? Most probably a combination of both.
Let us consider this; the under-construction Jinnah Hospital in Kabul is a telling, bitter comment on Pakistan’s outdated and tardy Planning Commission regime; the ground-breaking ceremony of this $ 20 million worth of facility took place in 2007 and it is still way off completion. One of the reasons is local security conditions and non-cooperation by the Afghan authorities. They have apparently been reluctant in exempting critical equipment being imported for installation at hospital from customs duties. The same has been the case with the hardware for the Rehman Baba School and Hostel. Following a meeting with a Pakistani Track 11 delegation in mid November chief executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah promised to take up this issue. His office now appears to be actively pursuing the two cases. It was reassuring to hear from him that “why should we ask for customs duties if these projects are meant for our people.”
The other major reason, nevertheless, lies this side of the Durand Line and relates to the involvement of several Pakistan government and army-related institutions. Petty audit objections by the ministry of finance, bloated bureaucratic egos, preference for institutional interests (instead of national image) and the pretext of legal requirements continue to stonewall accelerated execution of these projects. Payments to the contractors of the Jinnah Hospital, for instance, have been held up for over two years.
In Washington Barack Obama and George Bush completed two terms respectively in eight years. And here we cannot complete a project in nearly a decade in a country that has become so critical to Pakistan’s existence. The Kidney Hospital in Jalalabad is another example of bureaucratic egos and political motivations on both sides. Its physical structure was competed over five years ago but it remains a ghost house as of today. In another case, Pakistani authorities are still waiting for the Afghan government security to complete a 25 kilometer stretch on the Torkham-Jalalabad highway, despite the fact that the Afghan government itself is hamstrung by serious security crisis in that particular region; instead of finding a way to hire private security out of the project funding for quick completion of the road, our officials have been waiting for the Afghan authorities to provide them security. And hence have been stuck for ages.
The Ministry of Planning, Ministry of Finance, FWO, NESPAK and NLC are all part of the planning and execution of Afghan reconstruction projects and procedural hiccups here and there invariably lead to inordinate delays in implementation even of a flagship project such as the Jinnah Hospital.
One would also hope that the Afghan leadership too plays its role in influencing the narrative on Pakistan. In addition to the bureaucratic hurdles, the sentiment or biases against Pakistan currently run high as never before. The fact that “unknown” people removed the word “Pakistan” from the road-side billboard by the Rehman Baba School represents a chilling reminder of how deep this sentiment runs at least in some sections of the Afghan society.
Despite the baggage of mistakes by successive Pakistani rulers, neutralizing this sentiment is not impossible. No doubt mistakes have been made on both sides. Yet, positive messaging shall have to flow from the top. While the Afghan leaders such as President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah can try to re-mold the narrative on Pakistan and attempt to delink social sector cooperation from the security discourse, Pakistani civil and military leadership MUST find a one-window mechanism to expeditiously deal with the delays in Afghan projects.
Can we salvage this critically important symbiotic relationship with a prime minister, who is visibly basking under a sense of triumph following General Sharif’s exit, and the new army chief, who may promise a much better civil-military strategic synergy on foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan and India?
Can Pak-Afghan leaders turn a new page ahead of and at the upcoming Heart of Asia Conference in India? The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House probably makes a recalibration all the more instructive and urgent. Beyond doubt, Pakistan’s perceptions in Washington is linked with relations with India and actions in Pakistan. As they endeavor to handle a belligerent Modi government, Pakistani leaders can still do a lot for the social sector rehabilitation and construction Afghanistan. Hospitals and schools are instruments of relief for the common man. And that relief can be a huge vehicle to reviving Afghans’ confidence in Pakistan.
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate