The Pakistan-Afghanistan impasse seems to be getting further entrenched by each passing day; both governments blame terror sanctuaries in the other country as attacks continue to take place, and the bilateral conversation has regressed to accusations and denunciations. Repatriation of Afghan refugees and the proposed border fence on the Durand line are other ongoing contentious issues. With this toxic situation taking another nasty turn with the incidents between diplomatic staffs and law enforcement, real care has to be taken to prevent the Pak-Afghan relationship from crossing the point of no return.

In previous years, the United States could be expected to step in and break this deadlock, but the current administration has taken a more hands-off approach. Afghanistan is an issue buried under other priorities and decision making outsourced to other countries. The greatest US intervention in this deteriorating situation recently has been a visit by Senator John McCain to both countries. While we can expect this visit to be helpful in reducing some tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan, considering the limited mandate given to this diplomatic outreach and no real pressure from the top US administration, the onus of repairing the relationship lies closer at home.

This sentiment seems to be reflected in the recent meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and attended by top cabinet members and heads of all the armed forces, which was held a few days after the US senatorial delegation visited Islamabad. Peace and cooperation were made top priorities and ways to achieve those goals were discussed. The language of bilateral engagement remains strained by this impasse – the meeting released a statement urging Afghanistan to realise its own responsibility towards peace and take “simultaneous efforts” for restoring effective control on its territory. Undoubtedly true, but definitely not helpful when the objective is to break a bilateral deadlock.

Pakistan needs to be the one to change tracks; it must start by showing initiative and leadership by taking greater steps to resolution of outstanding issues. Nawaz has never been much of a statesman, but right now that is needed from him. With these initiatives come the “simultaneous efforts” the meeting talked about – Pakistan must address Afghan concerns first to build trust first. The key to this problem remains cross border sanctuaries – Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) in Afghanistan and the Haqqani network in Pakistan. Even the US has emphasised the need to resolve this problem time and again. The mutual destruction of these two groups helps both countries, and Pakistan must connect with Afghanistan to make that happen. It must not let Afghanistan become another India.