India on Wednesday called for rooting out all sanctuaries and safe havens used by terrorists and extremists active in Afghanistan as part of measures to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace in the war-torn country.
Addressing the Heart of Asia meet on regional security and connectivity in Islamabad, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj also said India is willing to work with Pakistan to boost connectivity and transit trade with Afghanistan.
Swaraj, the first Indian foreign minister to visit Pakistan since 2012, was set to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz later in the day for talks aimed at taking forward stalled bilateral relations.
She said the UN Secretary General had noted in his latest report on Afghanistan that the country continues to be threatened most by terrorism and not tribal or ethnic rivalries. In the past few months, terrorism had “grown in both intensity and scope” and terrorists had “made concerted efforts to capture and hold territory”.
Countries in Afghanistan’s proximity, Swaraj said, had a “a particular responsibility” to counter the terrorists. “It is also the collective duty of all of us to ensure that the forces of terrorism and extremism do not find sanctuaries and safe havens in any name, form or manifestation,” she said.
“An end to terrorism and extremism, and adherence to internationally accepted redlines are essential for reconciliation and lasting peace in Afghanistan,” she added.
Afghanistan has often accused Pakistan’s military of backing groups such as the Haqqani network that carry out attacks across the border. India too has called on Pakistan to act against terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba that operate from its soil.
Sushma Swaraj in Pakistan: What’s on the agenda?
Swaraj used the Heart of Asia forum, launched by 14 countries in 2011, to flag India’s concerns about restrictions imposed by Pakistan on transit trade with Afghanistan. The “Heart of Asia”, she said, cannot “function if arteries are clogged”.
Under the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA) finalised in 2011, Pakistan stops Afghan trucks carrying goods to India at its checkpoint at Wagah and prevents them from driving to the Indian checkpoint at Attari, located just a kilometre away. The Afghan trucks are also forced to return empty without carrying any goods from India. This has become an irritant in ties between Islamabad and Kabul.
Swaraj said India is willing to work with Pakistan to change things in the realm of trade. “Let me take this opportunity to extend our hand to Pakistan as well. It is time that we display the maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation,” she said.
India is prepared to move cooperation at a “pace which Pakistan is comfortable with”. She added: “But today, let us at least resolve to help Afghanistan – in the best traditions of good neighbourliness – through more effective transit arrangements.”
Afghanistan will benefit immediately if it is provided full and direct overland access to India’s markets so that it can take advantage of the zero duty regime for its exports, she said.
“Similarly, if Afghan trucks could carry Indian products to markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia, that would be the best way to make trucking from Afghanistan cost-effective and viable, and bestow benefits to the whole region,” she said.
India is willing to join the APTTA, and is also working with Afghanistan and Iran to develop trilateral transit, Swaraj said.