[Islamabad] Pakistan and Afghanistan reiterated their desire for increased bilateral cooperation, especially around counterterrorism, at a meeting on Sunday between the countries’ foreign ministers. The talks followed a joint meeting between leaders from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Afghanistan’s interim Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi met in the Foreign Ministry office in Islamabad for “a candid and in-depth exchange on key issues of mutual concern, including peace and security, as well as trade and connectivity,” a press release from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said.
According to the press release, the two sides also discussed “the importance of removing impediments to trade in order to advance the goal of enhanced regional economic integration and connectivity.”
At a joint press conference, Bhutto Zardari said, “Peace and stability in Afghanistan remain vital for the socioeconomic development, connectivity, and prosperity of the region.”
The high-level delegation from Afghanistan, led by Muttaqi together with Commerce Minister Nooruddin Azizi, arrived on May 5.
Earlier, on May 1, a United Nations Security Council committee allowed Muttaqi to travel to Islamabad in order to participate in the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers meeting. Under Security Council sanctions, Muttaqi has long been subject to a travel ban, an asset freeze, and an arms embargo.
Afghan delegation participated in the fifth China-Pakistan-Afghanistan talks
The Afghan delegation also participated in the fifth China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue on May 6. Discussions at that meeting focused on increasing cooperation between the countries in the fields of political engagement, counterterrorism, trade, and investments. China specifically discussed the idea of including Afghanistan in its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project.
Besides participating in the joint meeting, Muttaqi also met individually with the foreign ministers of Pakistan and China.
Afghan state media reported that China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang “emphasized the expansion of relations between China and Afghanistan in various sectors including investment, trade, and transit, and added that China is ready to support Kabul in economic reconstruction.”
Qin pointed to the shared history between China and Pakistan as the source of the countries’ cooperation and friendship. He also discussed the suffering of the Afghan people, calling on the global community to address the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and expressing hope that the partnership between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be a step in the right direction.
Muttaqi also met with several senior Pakistani officials, including Chief of Army Staff Gen. Asim Munir.
A press release from the Pakistan Armed Forces said that Munir “stressed the need for enhanced cooperation between the two brotherly neighbors to effectively tackle the common challenges of terrorism and extremism.”
Increased economic ties could help to address some of the underlying causes of instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, such as poverty and unemployment. By creating new job opportunities and promoting economic growth, the partnership could help to reduce the appeal of extremist groups and promote greater social cohesion.
Terror attacks spike in Pakistan near border region
Muttaqi’s visit is taking place during a spike in violent terror attacks in Pakistan, mostly in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan, both of which border Afghanistan.
Islamabad is convinced that the attacks are the work of banned terrorist organizations that have taken refuge in Afghanistan and are tied to the Afghan Taliban. Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, there has been a resurgence in terror attacks in Pakistan. The outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group, which is believed to be the Afghan Taliban’s ideological offshoot and ally, has claimed responsibility for most of the recent attacks.
Afghanistan denies any connection to TTP and has been evasive regarding Pakistan’s demands that they act against the group.
Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif warned Kabul last month that Pakistan would strike terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan if Kabul’s de facto rulers fail to rein in militias committing violence in Pakistan.
A recent statement from the Pakistan Strategic Defense Force, an organization that assesses national security threats in Pakistan, noted that “Muttaqi‘s visit comes at a time when Pakistan Armed Forces are carrying out targeted military operations against TTP and related terrorist groups in areas bordering Afghanistan.”
According to the statement, China and Pakistan agreed that Afghanistan’s involvement in the CPEC infrastructure project would be a positive development that “would not only benefit Afghanistan but also promote regional economic integration and stability.” The statement noted that Afghanistan’s involvement might be difficult due to security issues in Afghanistan.
Muhammed Suhail Shaheen, head of the Taliban’s political office, told The Media Line that the meeting between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan provided hope for increased regional stability.
“Growing relations between Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan are expected to have a transformative impact on the region. As these countries continue to work together to improve connectivity and economic cooperation, they could help to create a more prosperous and stable future for the region,” he said.
He said that Afghanistan was in a time of transition following the US withdrawal from the country in 2021. “Now our focus is on the reconstruction of the war-torn country, creation of employment opportunities, and poverty alleviation, so particularly for us, such meetings and dialogues between nearby and neighboring states have importance and significance, largely for regional peace and stability as well,” he said.
Shaheen expressed hope that the trust created by the meeting and others of its sort would lead to increased trade with and investment in Afghanistan.
Jianfu Ma, an anthropology professor at North Minzu University of China, told The Media Line that China’s role in the talks was in keeping with its geopolitical strategy.
“China has consistently advocated for peace and collaboration, particularly in solving regional conflicts and crises. The visit of the Afghan delegation is of utmost importance for regional security, mitigating and resolving the humanitarian crisis, as well as regional stability,” he said.
Ma anticipated that the meeting between the countries would lead to increased business development in the region and increased collaboration around counterterrorism. He noted, though, that the collaboration might fall apart if further terrorist attacks break out.
Azeem Khalid, an Islamabad-based expert on Chinese studies, described the meeting between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as having three interrelated objectives: to create peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to protect Chinese investments in Pakistan by eliminating terror attacks, and to promote development in Afghanistan.
“Both Pakistan and Afghanistan must understand how development occurs,” Khalid told The Media Line. “China cannot export development to these countries on its own. All efforts must be taken to make this region calm and productive to achieve a win-win situation for all.”
Moscow-based political analyst and South Asia expert Andrew Korybko told The Media Line that the CPEC’s expansion to Afghanistan would benefit Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, but that achieving the expansion would not be easy.
“To achieve objectives, first of all, they need to surmount some formidable challenges,” Korybko said. “The key problem relates to security issues in Afghanistan, especially the TTP.” He said that as long as Afghanistan denies its support for TTP attacks, it will be hard to move forward with integrating Afghanistan into the region.
He also noted the difficulty posed by the political unrest in Pakistan that has been ongoing since 2022. Unless Pakistan manages to address its political instability, any attempts to address the country’s multilateral interests with China and Afghanistan may prove temporary, he said.