Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pros & cons of transit trade by Muhammad Jamil

Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 6th May to begin talks on a transit trade agreement by the end of the year, which would ‘ultimately’ allow India to use the Wagah-Khyber route for trade with Kabul.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had hosted the Afghan and Pakistani presidents for the first round of the second trilateral talks said that both countries would benefit out of it. ‘This is an historic event. This agreement has been under discussion for 43 years without resolution,’ she said. Anyhow, mere signing of one MoU cannot be described as an historic event, as there are ‘many a slip betwixt cup and the lips’. Before this MoU is given practical shape and agreement is signed, there is need for sterling guarantee about resolution of Kashmir dispute which is lingering on for the last six decades. Secondly, if at all final agreement is signed, it should include Pakistan’s right to use India’s land route for trading with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Though India is not mentioned in the memorandum of understanding, there is a perception that India will be the main beneficiary of a transit trade agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan as Kabul’s major trade partner. Both India and Afghanistan have long insisted that Pakistan opens its land route for transit trade between the two countries which do not have a common border. Afghanistan has been persuading Pakistan to allow Afghanistan to trade with India using Wagah-Khyber route, but Pakistan had taken the position that till the time Kashmir dispute is resolved with India, it will not give any concession to India. The signing of the MoU is once again because of dependency syndrome that the US tells Pakistan that India is not a mortal threat to Pakistan, as if American leadership is ignorant about history of the subcontinent. It has to be mentioned that Pakistan had three wars with India, and the major and the basic reason was Kashmir dispute which remains unresolved despite various rounds of negotiations including the Composite Dialogue, which has been put on hold after November 26 Mumbai attacks. Pakistan always suspected that India would use commerce as a way to undermine Pakistan’s fidelity to Kashmir, which is why Pakistan wants India to resolve the core issue before MFN status could be accorded to it. The problem is that India’s lust for big power status clouds the prospects of unity amongst the South Asian nations. India, therefore, has to give practical demonstration that it will deal with other nations on the basis of equal sovereignty. Pakistan has shown flexibility on the Kashmir issue by going beyond its stated position of resolving the dispute in accordance with the UNSC resolutions. And India should have gone beyond its stated position of ‘Atut Ang’. There are good prospects of formation of Asian Union but all the disputes have to be resolved before moving forward. It is true that despite having fought many wars including two World Wars, the visionary leaderships of the European countries are united today. The outstanding feature of 13th SAARC meeting at Dhaka in April 2006 had been the admission of Afghanistan as 8th SAARC member, and observer status to the US, South Korea and two economic powerhouses of Asia - China and Japan. The European Union has also shown interest in an observer seat in the SAARC. The question is that why the EU and US are vying to have observer status in the SAARC? The answer is not far to seek, as this forum comprises eight countries of the region with total population of more than 1.5 billion people. And with Japan and China’s population of 1.5 billion (observer status), it is a market for 45 per cent population of the world. In order to make the SAARC a stepping-stone for creating an Asian Economic Union, its members should resolve all the disputes, as the formation of European Union was possible only after the member-countries had resolved all territorial disputes. Pakistan had espoused a lot of expectations for establishing an ideal relationship with Central Asian states that became independent countries after collapse of the Soviet Union. It was rightly so due to Pakistan’s strategic position, which is confluence and meeting point between Sinkiang of China, Iran and Central Asian Republics. And also because of its principal city-port Karachi - the closest trading port for this region, and is a convenient route for their trade with the western and other countries. But apart from non-resolution of Kashmir dispute, three decades of internecine conflicts and civil war-like conditions in Afghanistan did not allow this idea to materialize. Taliban factor had also been responsible for some misgivings in the past, as some obscurantist elements were rushing to neighbouring countries like China presenting distorted version of Islam preaching militancy, which they abhorred. Unfortunately, Pak-Afghan relations were in the past marred by decades of mistrust in varying degree under different shades of government, due to the lack of visionary leadership on both sides. Continuous contact and dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan has removed many a misunderstanding, and now both sides understand each other’s point of view, difficulties and compulsions. Pakistan had some reservations; the first one that Indian consulates in Afghanistan were involved in organising terrorist activities in Pakistani provinces adjoining Afghanistan. Secondly, since India has no border with Afghanistan it could not help Afghans the way Pakistan did by conducting operations arresting hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. And in the process quite a number of Pakistan’s law enforcing agencies personnel were killed. But to open a new chapter of everlasting friendship, both Afghan and Pakistan governments have left the past behind. The fact remains that Pakistan and Afghanistan are bound by religious, fraternal, cultural and geographical bonds; and as it is often said in the context of geographical situation and in the realm of international relations that ‘you can change friends but not the neighbours’. Given the mutual trust, respect and cooperation, both countries could march forward to achieve progress and prosperity of their people. Apart from other avenues, the region could benefit tremendously from the proposed gas pipeline project from Central Asia to India, which envisages linking Turkmenistan with India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this backdrop, Pakistan rightly views a strong and stable Afghanistan not only in the interest of Pakistan but also in the interest of the region. Pakistan therefore has made enormous sacrifice and suffered in men and material but has been able to arrest and kill hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban. Afghan government should remember the crucial role played by Pakistan to ensure smooth presidential and general elections in Afghanistan by keeping strict vigil on the border.

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