Ammara Ahmad talks to the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, His Excellency Janan Mosazai, about trade, terrorism, and cricket.
Ammara Ahmad: A few months ago, you said that this is the ‘new chapter” for relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. What exactly did you mean?
His Excellency, Janan Mosazai: There has been a new beginning after the election of the National Unity government, especially after President Ghani’s historic visit to Pakistan in November last year, when the governments of the two countries started high-level strategic dialogue that has been ongoing, both on security and economic cooperation. One thing that we always have to bear in mind, at least from the Afghan perspective, is that the destinies, future and presence of both countries are inextricably linked to each other. What does this mean? This means that peace and security in Afghanistan will have an immediate positive impact on peace and security in Pakistan. It also means that the economic development of Afghanistan and Pakistan is closely dependant on each other.
Look at the energy situation in Pakistan. It is one of the key priorities of the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Where are the largest energy reserves in this region? Central Asia. And the only efficient way for Pakistan to access them is through Afghanistan and we are fully committed. Afghanistan is fully prepared to realize its own role in the region as a land-bridge, a roundabout, connecting South Asia with Central Asia, and these two regions to West Asia, Iran and the Middle East, while also enhancing connectivity to China.
AA: Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has said that if Pakistan wants access to Central Asia, it should give Afghanistan the access to India. Do you think that is possible in the near future?
H.E: We should be able to take concrete steps when it comes to realizing the common vision of an integrated region. One would hope that it would be possible. That’s what leadership demands and that’s what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has spoken about clearly for a long time. That’s exactly the mission of President Ashraf Ghani. It is the common vision that resulted in the creation of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.
AA: Has Zarb-e-Azb played a positive role in this?
H.E: You see, whatever steps the countries of this region but specifically Afghanistan and Pakistan take to counter the threat of terrorism and extremism is a positive step for all the countries in this region. The same is true for the operations we undertake, on a daily basis, especially right now against the so-called “spring offensive” and the heightened number of attacks that we are countering. That also contributes to the peace, security and stability of the regions. And that’s not just in defense of Afghanistan but Afghanistan acting as a frontline state against terrorism.
AA: How would you respond to the claims that many militants escaped into Afghanistan before the operation started?
H.E: There is broad agreement between our two governments that the terrorists are more capable of going back and forth across frontiers, boundaries and borders. And states, especially of this region, are slower to respond, coordinate and cooperate. That is why we have a significant terrorist threat in this region and continue to lose a large number of innocent civilians. And this is why there is emphasis, specifically from President Ghani that both sides need to evolve effective mechanisms, better coordination and cooperation, so that we can go after these terrorists.
AA: Have you made any progress in cooperation? Is this why there are frequent meetings between high-level officials of the two countries?
H.E: The strategic dialogue that has been taking place between Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the visit of President Ghani to Pakistan in November, we have made progress. Now there is a convergence on the view of what the threat is, on the fact that we need to go after terrorists who are destabilizing both the countries and that we need to go after them without any distinction. Now the task is to come up with an offer to strengthen those existing methods for result-oriented cooperation.
AA: Is President Ghani under public pressure to show something concrete for his shift towards Pakistan and has he given Pakistan a deadline to broker talks with Afghan Taliban?
H.E: I think you would agree that the expectations and hopes of this region, particularly the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan are to see concrete progress in efforts towards peace. And any step that we take towards peace in Afghanistan will have a positive effect on peace in Pakistan and vice versa. There is a common understanding and an agreement on the fact that Pakistan has a key role to play when it comes to supporting our peace efforts and reconciliation in Afghanistan and it our hope that we see the tangible progress in this arena.
AA: At one point there was news of a joint operation but it was cancelled. Is there a chance of that happening in the future?
H.E: We have never had any discussion on joint operations. What we have discussed and agreed to explore and undertake are coordinated or simultaneous operations. Afghan and Pakistani forces along the Durand line will coordinate their operational plans so that when Pakistani forces are conducting an operation on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, the Afghan forces are fully in the picture. They also are aware of what’s going to happen on the Pakistan side of the line, to make sure that there is no ingress of fleeing terrorists and to stop them, arrest, counter or to go after them. And the same is for operations we plan in Afghanistan. We have had high-level exchanges between senior officers at the two-star, one-star level and lower levels in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
AA: What do you think about the claims that leaders of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, particularly Fazlullah, have found safe havens in Kunar?
H.E: Well this is a claim that is being made. You hear it. We hear it. We would like to know where this man is and where other people are.
AA: Have you discussed about a military operation along these lines?
H.E: The moment we have information about his or other individual’s whereabouts, we will go after them if they happen to be on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. But I need to underline the fact that Afghan forces have undertaken specific military operations, on the Afghan side of the Durand Line where there was the presence of TTP militants, including Kunar, where we have lost significant numbers of our soldiers, police officers and other personnel in going after these individuals. And we have also managed to eliminate large numbers of foreign as well as local militants and terrorists in those operations.
AA: Now that the National Unity government has started a “new chapter” with Pakistan, do you feel some frustration when the Taliban attacks continue in Afghanistan?
H.E: As they say, “you cannot change your neighbor.” But in Afghanistan, we are working towards a normalized relation towards Pakistan. In some ways we are overcoming the legacy of long years, we are overcoming history in terms of the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because of the strategic dialogue we have a common definition of the problem that we confront. Part of which is the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan have been in a state of undeclared hostility. And we need to overcome that. We do need to sequence the actions we have to take. There are some areas we think we need more urgent action than others. And security is absolutely one of those areas. Support to our peace reconciliation efforts is absolutely one of those areas- the key priority.
AA: Did these efforts for “normalized” relations with Pakistan cost you or caused a conflict in Afghanistan’s ties with India?
H.E: Afghanistan has always enjoyed a close and very warm relationship with India and that will continue. Our relationship with India is not new. It is a civilizational relationship.
H.E: Recently an Afghan journalist asked if India has lost Afghanistan to Pakistan. How would you comment on that?
AA: (laughs) People are entitled to their views. You cannot, especially in this day and age, ask someone not to have any views or to not give voice to their views. Those views have existed for as long as I can remember. The key is that the government of Afghanistan has a very clear and sincere position. It is that we want to be a platform for cooperation, for understanding, for building confidence in this region.
AA: President Ghani said in the 18th SAARC conference that Afghanistan was not a ground for “proxy war” between India and Pakistan. Is this how Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan is seen?
H.E: Our stance was clear at the SAARC summit. Afghanistan will never allow anyone to use Afghan soil to play proxy games. We have suffered for far too long because of regional rivalries and proxy designs.
AA: Since the Peshawar School attack, 65000+ illegal Afghans have been evicted. Does this concern you?
H.E: First of all I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the gratitude and the appreciation of the government and the people of Pakistan for hosting millions of Afghan refugees for close to four decades, for opening their hearts and homes to their Afghan brothers and sisters. Afghan refugees have had the best experience of refugees, not only in this region, but probably the whole world. For that we are thankful and grateful.
There is a clear agreement between the two governments on the return of Afghan refugees. There are three principles. Their return will be voluntary, gradual and dignified. No Afghan refugee will be forced to leave Pakistan and we have assured the government of Pakistan about the determination of our government to create conducive conditions and environment inside Afghanistan to encourage refugees to return. The harassment of refugees, after the Peshawar attack, is something that we have discussed with the Pakistan government, the federal and the provincial. There has been a significant reduction in cases of arrest of Afghan refugees, registered and unregistered, as well as forced expulsions. The presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is a humanitarian issue and should continue to be treated as such by the government of Pakistan. And we will continue to make sure that Afghan refugees and the people of Afghanistan have that sense of gratitude and appreciation.
AA: Is the Afghan public hostile towards Pakistan because of these evictions?
H.E: In terms of public hostility, I am sure you read, see, hear such stories in the media, but as the ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan, what I try to underline is that the people and government of Pakistan have sacrificed a lot, have carried the burden for close to four decades by hosting millions of Afghan refugees. It is probably the right thing to continue that positive, brotherly treatment of Afghan refugees for however long is needed for us to facilitate the return of our refugees back to Afghanistan. You have an Afghan refugee who has spent twenty years in Pakistan and has been grateful and thankful for the treatment he has received, the freedom he has enjoyed, like sending his kids to school. If he/she is forced to leave Pakistan, that might not be the kind of outcome we want. I am thankful to some of the senior leaders in Pakistan who have sympathetically listened to this problem.
AA: Would you name some of them?
H.E: Minister of States and Frontier, Abdul Qadir Baloch, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif first and foremost, Foreign Secretary Sartaj Aziz, Mr Imran Khan for addressing the situation specifically in Khyber Pukhtunkhawa (KP), the Chief Minister of KP Pervez Khattak, who visited Kabul recently and many others.
AA: India and Bangladesh have resolved a decades old border dispute. Do you think a consensus can be reached on the Durand Line and its porous nature?
H.E: The issue of the Durand Line, its legal status and the decision about its future, is not in the hands of the Afghan government. It is the decision that the Afghan people will have to make at some point.
AA: Through a referendum?
H.E: It is up to the people to decide.
AA: But the government represents the people.
H.E: In our view the Durand line should not hamper cooperation between the states of Afghanistan and Pakistan about the key challenges that we face and the key opportunities that we have before us. There are major mega-regional energy projects such as Casa 1000 that will bring electricity from Central Asia to Afghanistan, Tajikistan and also the TAPI gas pipeline. It is not an issue in our view and has not been so.
AA: People moving back and forth between the Durand line is not a concern?
H.E: That actually is a testament to how deep and close relations are between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Look at the commonalities between Afghanistan and Pakistan, language, religion, history, food, good looks and millions of Pakistanis trace their ancestry to Afghanistan. It is something that should bring us closer. There are no other two countries, no other two neighbors that have so much in common. But yet we have our issues, we are confronting problems and there are opportunities that have come and gone, unrealized and unexplored. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been very clear, about the need for peaceful and cooperative relations with all of Pakistan’s relations. He always singles out Afghanistan as a key neighbor for Pakistan and this in our view presents us with an historic opportunity, to try to translate our common vision.
AA: How will the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor benefit Afghanistan?
H.E: Again, President Ghani has been very clear. Any step that is taken in this region for enhancing infrastructure and connectivity will have a positive impact on Afghanistan because Afghanistan is at the heart of the Asia region. China is one of our strategic partners and given the warm and close relationship that exists between Pakistan and China we see only sky is the limit in terms of cooperation. Bilaterally between Afghanistan and China but also trilaterally between Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, we have had some good discussions at the political level for security cooperation and economic dialogue.
AA: You have worked with President Karzai as well President Ashraf Ghani, how do they differ in their personal style of leadership?
H.E: Well, what I can tell you is that the whole issue of “differences”, I disagree with the word in the first place. The “differences” between President Karzai and President Ghani are exaggerated. Both the leaders have an agreement when it comes to the need for normalized relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Karzai did his best when in power and President Ghani is doing his best.
AA: President Karzai accused Pakistan of destabilizing Afghanistan more than once. But that isn’t the point. You have known them from close quarters. So how do they differ in their leadership style?
H.E: I would be reluctant to comment on that question. I would like you to visit Kabul, seek appointment with both the leaders and interview them.
AA: The Afghan cricket team dazzled everyone in World Cup 2015. How can you promote cricket diplomacy between Pakistan and Afghanistan?
H.E: We have been trying to promote cricket diplomacy between the two countries. We had a very successful match between the Team A of both the countries in Islamabad. A lot of people watched it and it was broadcasted live in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I believe that we can do more when it comes to promoting cricket exchanges between the two countries, national level but also at the level of provincial teams. Not all matches between Pakistan and Afghanistan have to be between national teams.
AA: The women’s’ teams may be?
H.E: Yes. Women’s’ team, under-18 team, provincial teams. They have been here and I have had a few meetings with colleague from Pakistan Cricket Board and it’s our hope that we will see more matches and exchanges in the coming months.
AA: Would the Afghan team like to come to Pakistan?
H.E: We would love to come, love to visit Pakistan. I have had this discussion with the leadership of Afghanistan Cricket Board. And they were here a few days ago and I had the honor of hosting the national cricket team at my residence. They would be delighted to come anytime to Pakistan, as much as possible.
AA: Are you here with you family?
H.E: Yes, my wife and our daughter.
AA: Does she go to school here?
H.E: Yes, she does.
AA: What is the best thing about being in Pakistan?
H.E: I feel at home. It’s a beautiful country. I have tried to visit as much as possible. It is a big country. So far I have managed to go to Sindh and Gilgit Baltistan.
AA: Did you get out of the hotels?