In a small ceremony that belied the significance of the event, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan on Saturday signed a memorandum of understanding with an elite Pakistani university to send Afghan students to study on its campus in Lahore.
This means that for the first time, Afghanistan will be using public funds to support its students' higher education abroad, and the choice of the host country, Pakistan, reflects the shift in Kabul's often-fraught relations with its eastern neighbor.
The administration of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai frequently accused Pakistan of providing Afghan Taliban with safe havens on its soil and even facilitating cross-border attacks. The accusations were often reiterated by American officials.
The inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as president in Afghanistan and General Raheel Sharif as the new army chief in Pakistan has seen a sea change in attitudes and increased security cooperation. Ghani, said Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, is eager to broaden the new relationship to other areas.
“We want to use the scholarship program as another bridge between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said the Afghan envoy. The hope is that it will lead to “closer, meaningful, deeper people-to-people relations” between the two countries.
The $1 million pledged by the Afghan government to send students to the Lahore University of Management Sciences, or LUMS, will be added to $2 million contributed by the Pakistani government. A focus of the student program, along with building contacts between people, is to facilitate business development in Afghanistan. LUMS is considered one of the premier business management training institutes in the region.
The first group of five to 10 Afghan students is expected to arrive in Lahore as early as this summer. They will get acclimated to their new surroundings and the weather, Lahore being much hotter than Afghanistan in general, before starting their first semester in fall.
Mosazai expects as many women as men to be part of the group.
Yet, the warming of relations between the two countries is new, and still untested.
Afghanistan expects Pakistan to deliver on its promise of bringing Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. If that does not happen, Ghani may run out of political capital to be friendly to Pakistan.
Sohail Naqvi, vice chancellor of LUMS, did not expect such an eventuality to have a negative impact on the education program.
Both sides said they hoped for increased funding in the future to include more students and eventually maybe even midcareer professionals, with the Afghan ambassador hoping for a LUMS-like institute eventually in Afghanistan.