Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Afghanistan’s New Ambassador to Pakistan: Opportunity for Establishing Better Af-Pak Relations?

The National Unity Government of Afghanistan recently appointed a new ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The choice of President Ghani for this appointment is Dr. Hazrat-Omar Zakhilwal, Ex. Chief Economist and Ex. Minister of Finance.  In addition to being the Afghan Ambassador, Dr. Zakhilwal is titled to be the Afghan President’s special envoy in Pakistan.
Dr. Zakhilwal appointment for this important position says it outright that the new Afghan government values better economic and political ties with Pakistan.  To achieve this ambitious goal, Dr. Zakhilwal is better placed than any other Afghan politician.

Unlike other politicians in the previous Afghan administration, Zakhilwal has already established work-able relation with his Pakistani counterparts especially when he served as the Minister of Finance under Ex. President Karzai.  An example of the cooperation between the two countries has been Dr Zakhilwal's success in attracting cooperating response from Mr. Ishaq Dar, the Pakistani Minister for Treasury, to improve bilateral economic ties.  He succeeded in mobilizing the Pakistani government’s much needed political support for the important Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) 1300 Mega Watt electricity transmission project.  Under CASA, Afghanistan will receive a transit fee for the large amount of electricity transmitted to Pakistan for a transit fee.  This is a significant project that can promote regional integration and prosperity. 

Afghanistan’s President Ghani envisions precisely this sort of economic ties with Pakistan.  He believes that if the two countries are genuine in their relations, each can contribute significantly to the other’s economic development.  President Ghani would like to see a 100+ more CASAs between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And for that to happen, Kabul needs a representative in Islamabad that can help create similar interest and thinking in Pakistan.  Dr. Zakhilwal, for his experience, is a good fit for this purpose.

Afghan Interest in Promoting Political Ties

President Ghani’s administration has also been trying to establish friendlier political relations with Pakistan.  Ever since coming to power in 2014, President Ghani sought support from Saudi Arabia and China, Pakistan’s geo-political allies and traveled directly to Pakistan to gather momentum for renewed trust and ties with Pakistan particularly in quelling the insurgency in Afghanistan. 

For a while the new efforts seemed working and hopes for better ties between the two countries were high.  However, due to the exposure of the surprising death of Mulla Omar, the Taliban Supreme Leader, and subsequent violence in Kabul, bilateral relations went sore and back to square one.  Since then, optimism for a different chapter in Af-Pak relations has seemed as distant as it did during the previous Afghan administration.  this is not in the interest of any of the two neighbors. 

Afghanistan has always expected Pakistan to value its relations with the democratically elected government in Kabul than other non-state groups, and to cooperatively support the war torn country’s reconstruction and development efforts.  Kabul feels this has not happened for a long time and despite numerous exhausting efforts from Kabul.

However, Dr. Zakhilwal’s appointment may be a turning point and an opportunity for generating a different response from Pakistan.  He has proven to already possess the required leadership, understanding of the context, and previous success in building trust with Pakistan.

Considering that years of instability, mistrust and violence in the Af-Pak region has had devastating geo-political and economic consequences for both the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two countries should seize this renewed opportunity and utilize on it to establish the momentum for a more peaceful, integrated and successful Af-Pak region.  That in turn will contribute to prosperity and security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

Will this happen, however, remains a big question to be answered in Islamabad.

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