India on Wednesday offered to work with Pakistan to strengthen regional trade and cooperation at a pace Islamabad “is comfortable with”, a clear sign of thawing ties between the south Asian neighbours.
Addressing the Heart of Asia meet on security and stability in Afghanistan, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said the time has come for the two countries to “display the maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other”.
“The entire world is waiting and rooting for a change. Let us not disappoint them,” she told the gathering that included Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Swaraj, the first minister from the Narendra Modi government to visit Pakistan, also 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.
The Heart of Asia meeting, an annual gathering of Asian and other countries to pledge support to Afghanistan, is being held months after the first, inconclusive talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban -- in which Pakistan played a key role.
Countries in Afghanistan’s proximity, Swaraj said, had “a particular responsibility” to counter terrorists.
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.
“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.
Prime Minister Sharif and Afghan President Ghani jointly inaugurated the conference attended by foreign ministers of several nations.
Swaraj said the Heart of Asia forum “cannot function if arteries are clogged” while flagging India’s concerns about restrictions imposed by Pakistan on transit trade with Afghanistan.
Under the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA) finalised in 2011, Pakistan stops Afghan trucks carrying goods to India at its Wagah checkpoint and prevents them from driving to the Indian checkpoint at Attari, located just a kilometre away.
Afghan trucks are also forced to return empty without carrying goods from India. This has become an irritant in ties between Islamabad and Kabul.
Connectivity lies at the heart of India’s own efforts to push for regional economic cooperation, the minister said, while arguing that Afghanistan will benefit immediately if it is provided full and direct overland access to India’s markets so it can take advantage of a zero-duty regime for its exports.
“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 added.
Swaraj said India is willing to join the APTTA, and is also working with Afghanistan and Iran to develop trilateral transit.
“... let us at least resolve to help Afghanistan -- in the best traditions of good neighbourliness -- through more effective transit arrangements,” she said.
The theme of the conference, jointly hosted by Pakistan and Afghanistan, is “enhanced cooperation for countering security threats and promoting connectivity in the Heart of Asia region”.
Ghani focussed on how the countries of the region can tackle the Taliban.
“The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan launched a vicious attack on children in Peshawar for which the Pakistan military robustly responded. But that very response brought the Taliban onto our country. Until now we have launched 40 operations through our Special Forces against them... What is the nature of the Taliban and how do we deal with it?”
Ghani said al Qaeda, Islamic State and terrorists from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Middle East are all present on Afghan soil and he felt it was prudent to name the problems plaguing the region in order to frame a plan of action for regional cooperation along the lines suggested by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
“The Taliban, which began as an Afghan phenomenon, have become a regional phenomenon,” he added.
In his speech, he also referred to the recent terror attacks in Istanbul, Paris, Sharm-el-Shaikh and San Bernardino. “We do have a problem. It is a global and regional problem and it requires us to focus on it systematically and coherently.”