Perceptions and misperceptions



M. Ziauddin

Afghanistan is a poor land-locked country, placed almost at the last rung in the world economic ranking. A country in a state of war since 1979 with no end in sight. This is the kind of country that we have chosen on our own or perhaps forced by circumstances to pick up a conflict with—a conflict so serious that we felt no qualms closing down the border with it denying the poor Afghans their daily essentials. This we have done despite the fact that we have signed, being a neighboring coastal country, a transit trade agreement with it.
The Afghanistan–Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) is a bilateral trade agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan renegotiated several times. The treaty, signed in 1950, gave Afghanistan the right to import duty-free goods through Karachi. The treaty allows Afghanistan access to the dry port of Lahore, and also access to a land route up to the Wagah border with India. It does not allow Afghan goods to cross the actual border, as the intention of the treaty was to provide Afghanistan with access to the Port of Karachi. It was not intended to allow Afghans to use Pakistan as a corridor to India. It does not allow India to use the land route to export goods to Afghanistan either. President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani insists Pakistan to open transit route to India.
The Convention on Transit Trade of Land-locked States is a multilateral treaty that addresses international rules allowing for land-locked countries to transport goods to and from seaports. The convention imposes obligations on both land-locked states and on coastal states that ratify the treaty.
The convention has essentially been superseded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which contains similar provisions for transit arrangements to be made between coastal and land-locked states. The provisions of the Convention are however not trouble free in regards to landlocked states. For example, it still leaves undefined the concept of the legitimate interests of transit states. Under the pretext of the protection of legitimate interests, transit countries can critically challenge the rights and freedoms of landlocked countries. The term legitimate interests can be and has been interpreted by transit states according to their convenience.
This loophole in the Convention has been used by Pakistan to close down the Afghan border on the excuse that its security has come under threat from across Durand Line as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were launching terror attacks on selected targets inside Pakistan from their safe sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.
But then, how can a poor country like Afghanistan which is fighting an existential war itself with terrorists could be accused of providing sanctuaries to Pakistani terrorists in regions beyond the writ of Kabul?
On the other hand the excuse that Pakistan government has used to close down the border has given rise to a number of questions like if these terrorists could cross the border and travel across hundreds of miles un-deducted to reach the selected targets in the Punjab and Sindh what were our law enforcement agencies doing or for that matter if the TTP was using its sleepers inside Punjab which is full of Jihadi organizations of various color and hues to launch these attacks, isn’t it also the failure of these very agencies?
These questions give rise to another question: What would happen if the Afghan government were to go to the Security Council complaining that Pakistan has violated the law governing the landlocked arrangement without any plausible reason?
The other day during an interaction between a group of visiting Afghan journalists and their Pakistani counterparts it was pointed out that the misperception about each other that exists in their respective countries was because the two countries get the news about their neighbor from a third source or what is called second hand sources. Newspapers and TV programs of one country are banned in the other. No Pakistani media organization has its reporters reporting from Afghanistan and neither are there any Afghan reporters belonging to Afghan media organizations reporting from Pakistan.
Indeed, the commercial interests of these media organizations would certainly ensure more responsible and less sensational or acrimonious reporting from each other’s country if this ban were to be lifted and reporters are posted in each-others’ country. In fact if Pakistan were to enhance the economic interest of Afghans in Pakistan and that of our business persons’ economic interests in Afghanistan, the chances are the vested economic interests of business persons of the respective countries would certainly force them to prevail upon their respective policy makers to keep the relations between the two countries perpetually tension free.
In this respect, one could even take a second look at the demand of bothAfghanistan and India for direct trading by land route through Pakistan. This arrangement can be negotiated on the basis of trade-off that is, what we would get in the bargain. Our fear that India could use the facility to undermine our security is legitimate but once its economic interests get meshed up with the ‘route’ New Delhi would think more than ten times before risking it by indulging in any mischief. More over with the CPEC being provided security by Pakistani and Chinese troops, India would be a greater fool to even think on those lines.
There are many influential quarters in Pakistan who still look at Afghanistan with reference to its original sin—opposing Pakistan’s UN membership. This perhaps colors our view of the moves that Afghanistan makes now in its own interests. We should not forget that in those days kings were ruling Kabul and their actions were being dictated by the flow of events at that particular point in history.
Here is a very pertinent passage from Aslam Khattak’s book The Pathan Odyssey. He had first- hand knowledge of Afghanistan of those days because he was posted to the Afghan embassy Kabul in February 1954:
“In 1947, on the eve of Pakistan’s independence, the Afghan Prime Minister Shah Mahmood visited London for talks with the Foreign Secretary. Hoping for support for some kind of independence for the tribes, he did not have much success.
“Unable to achieve realization of its interest in the Frontier internationally, the Afghans turned to a demand for an independent Pushtunistan. They pushed it with diplomats in Kabul and in the newly created United Nations Organization. They provided money and arms to dissident tribesmen and gave them refuge and schooling in Kabul. They voted against Pakistan’s admission to the UN.
“Pakistan in its turn believed—quite erroneously as it turned out—that India and Afghanistan had made a secret understanding in July 1949 for Kabul to side with Delhi in the event of a war with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. In that event the Government of India would give Afghanistan the territories beyond the Indus. There is no evidence to support this but Kabul did continue to demand that at the least there should be a referendum in the tribal territory giving its people the chance to opt for independence—which had not been done at the time of partition when the choice had simply been between Pakistan and India. “
Interestingly, despite Kabul’s hostility towards Pakistan in those early days of our independence, it had refrained from playing any mischief against Pakistan either when the country with the help of tribesmen was engaged in the first Kashmir war or in 1965 or even in 1971.