Pakistan’s populist opposition leader, Imran Khan, says the future of long-term relations with landlocked Afghanistan lies in the two countries having “open borders” and “free trade.”
Pakistan is unilaterally fencing the nearly 2,600-kilometer, largely porous Afghan border. Authorities defend the recently initiated project, saying it will help stop criminal and terrorist infiltration, as well as boost counterterrorism efforts on both sides.
The Afghan government opposes the border fortification plan because Kabul traditionally has disputed the demarcation drawn during the former British rule of the Indian subcontinent.
Islamabad dismisses the objections and maintains it inherited the boundary as an international frontier.
“The long term relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is open borders. Rather than building fences, I think it should have open, free trade, it should be like a European Union type of relationship. That’s our long term future and this would be of enormous benefit to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Khan told VOA in a recent interview at Khan's residence and party office in Bani Gala on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Afghanistan relies on Pakistani seaports and land routes for its international trade. Rising diplomatic and political tensions, however, have led to a reduction in the trade and transit activity through Pakistan, according to businessmen on both sides.
Bilateral ties have deteriorated, particularly over the past few years because of a spike in Taliban attacks and territorial advances in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials allege that insurgents use sanctuaries on Pakistani soil to plot deadly attacks in Afghanistan, and the neighboring country’s spy agency is helping them expand their influence in the war-ravaged country.
Islamabad denies the charges and accuses the Afghan intelligence agency of sheltering and helping anti-Pakistan militants to orchestrate terrorist attacks in the country.
‘The worst of times’
Cricket-star-turned-politician Khan, who also is popular among cricket-playing Afghan youth, acknowledges it is “the worst of times” in terms of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“The problem is right now there is a lot of suspicion in Afghanistan about Pakistan, the way our foreign policy has gone up and down. And in Pakistan right now there is a lot of suspicion about Afghanistan, that the attacks in Pakistan, the terrorist attacks, are coming from Afghanistan, instigated by India,” said Khan.
He echoed Pakistan's official stance that archrival India is using its growing influence, particularly among Afghan security institutions, to allegedly destabilize Pakistan. Kabul and New Delhi both deny the charges.
Khan urged that the United States should desist from intensifying military actions in Afghanistan, underscoring the need to find a political settlement to the protracted Afghan conflict.
“I think the best decision Donald Trump could make is to finally decide to take American troops out of Afghanistan, and then that will pave the way for some sort of consensus government in Afghanistan,” Khan said.
President Donald Trump’s administration has said it is close to finalizing its Afghan policy, which could see an additional several thousand U.S. troops being deployed to Afghanistan to help local security forces break the military stalemate with the Taliban.
“As long as the troops are there, they are not going to be able to enforce peace there. If 150,000 NATO troops could not change Afghanistan, then 5,000 or 10,000 troops are only going to prolong the agony," he added.
Khan’s party rules Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which shares a border with Afghanistan. The province has borne the brunt of terrorist attacks since Islamabad joined hands 16 years ago with Washington’s anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.
The violence has significantly declined, however, due to counterterrorism operations in adjoining border areas and major police reforms the provincial government has introduced over the past four years.
The opposition politician and his party, Pakistan Terheek-e-Insaf, are being credited with leading a consistent anti-corruption campaign that ultimately prompted the country’s Supreme Court to investigate and oust former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from office last month for concealing overseas assets.
Observers say Khan’s successful legal battle has boosted his party’s political standing, and it could pose a serious challenge to Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party in 2018 parliamentary elections.