Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is celebrated in Iran, Afghanistan the northern areas of Pakistan this time of year. It is also Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere. It marks the end of winter, yes, in spite of a lot of snow still needing time to melt in the north of the world, and this year they had more than even great sports enthusiasts wished for.

Let me wish a Happy New Year to all concerned, indeed all Afghans and Pakistanis, hoping for new and better relations between the two countries. It about time they become real brothers and sisters again. After all, they will always remain neighbours, and they have been through so much, indeed during the last forty years or so. We recall the Soviet invitation of Afghanistan on another new year’s eve, the one of 31 December in 1979, according to the commonly used Gregorian calendar.

That became the beginning of a huge influx of Afghan refugees to Pakistan, some seven million in all over the years. At least one-third of the Afghan people were displaced within the country or abroad, and many went to Iran and Pakistani. Today, most of the refugees who lived in the neighbouring countries have returned, but it is estimated that some two million still reside in Pakistan, for security, economic and other reasons.

I hope that only ‘soft pressure’ is put on them to return, not ‘hard pressure.’ It should be realized that is difficult for Afghanistan to accommodate them at home, especially if they are forced to leave fast. They can contribute to the further instability of Afghanistan, indeed the capital Kabul with it huge slum areas.

Instead of pushing refugees to return, it would be desirable to establish cooperation organizations between the host countries and the home country. Most Afghans in power today have been refugees for shorter or longer periods of time in their life, and many have been in Pakistan, including diplomats, university teachers, researchers, NGO staff, and so on. Many have received or are receiving education in Pakistan. They should be invited to play an even more important role in cooperation between the two countries, and thus in building both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar in Islamabad where the Pakistan-Afghanistan relations were discussed. Pakistan House, an independent Islamabad-based think-thank, organized the seminar with speakers from the two countries and a few from overseas. Dr. Abbdul Baqi Amin, Director of the Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies in Kabul, was one of the able keynote speakers; he has earlier been a refugee in Pakistan.

The European Union Ambassador to Pakistan, Jean-Francois Cautain, who has served in Afghanistan earlier, was another eminent keynote speaker. Explaining the essential purpose and achievement of the 28-member strong EU organisation, he said that its mandate was straightforward and indeed important: the EU has contributed to peace and cooperation in Europe, so that war between the countries is now unthinkable. In other words, Cautain stressed that we must not think of large regional and international organisations only as complicated, big bureaucracies; the basics of the European Union are still simple and concrete, he said.

It is important to remember that when we discuss cooperation within the region, in this case, the essential cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we must be able to focus on the overall purpose, notably peace and prosperity in the countries and the region. We should not let the problems overshadow the essential positive purpose.

It is true that there are countries in the region and the world which make their Afghanistan-relationship, and their Pakistan-relationship, a matter of geopolitical influence at the expense of peace and development in the countries. Hence, it is indeed important that Pakistan and Afghanistan alone and together develop relationships with the rest of the world that are in their interest. Pakistan and Afghanistan have paid a very high price for what was termed ‘war on terror’ after 9/11. The USA and the West seem not to have an exit plan to leave Afghanistan any time soon. Yet, Afghanistan and the region need short and long-term plans for a stable future with peace and prosperity.

I do not know how these plans should be and how to implement them, but what I know is that it is important to find solutions; it is high time after 17 years of de facto occupation since 2001. I first came to Pakistan to deal with Afghan refugee issues, with emphasis on education, at the end of 2000. I would have liked to have seen much more progress than what has been the case in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, too. The cost to the locals of the West’s invasion and long occupation of Afghanistan has been far too high. If somebody should ‘do more’, as the typical outside demand is phrased on Pakistan, I would say it is those who have used Pakistan for their interests. As a matter of fact, that also includes using Afghanistan for their geopolitical interests. In hindsight, one questions many aspects of the 2001 invasion, its duration, purpose, and achievements.

In my article today, let me draw attention to some general trends about regional and international cooperation in our time. I hope that can help add some insight of relevance to the Pakistan-Afghan relations.

In our time, individual countries and regions are more unpredictable than before, partly because the populist trends within the countries make their internal politics more uncertain – which I wrote about in my column last week. In Europe, several political parties usually form governments because gone are the days when one or two parties had the majority alone.

The trends in the ‘old world’, Europe, and the ‘new world’, America, influence the rest of the world; when they sneeze, indeed catch a cold, we all fall sick. The USA is now the only superpower, and in certain ways, it is more insular than before. President Trump says so, at least, using the term ‘America first’ and wanting trade relations that are more unilaterally in USA’s interests than agreements on a level playing field. Yet, in other ways, USA still keeps showing its muscles internationally, and I am sure it will continue to do so for many decades.

Europe, too, shows its leadership role, with or without America. China is moving up. Russia is again beginning to play a more important role. In future, it may sometimes need assistance from China, Central Asian Republics, Iran, and other countries, and perhaps, too, cooperation with Europe. But the latter seems to be more distant, at least if we listen to the European political rhetoric. Some analysts, including the renowned, elderly professor in peace and conflict studies, Johan Galtung, have suggested that, in future, there will be many geopolitical poles with dominant groups of countries; I think he has indicated 6-8 such important groups. They should as far as possible be independent of far-away control, which would usually mean American and Western. In practice, it would also be expected that the new poles and groups will align themselves with the major powers, especially in the same geographical region. The United Nations and other international organisations often fail in showing neutrality. They should play a supportive role for local and regional development – not heavy-handed superpower world rule.

In addition to countries cooperating because they belong to the same region, indeed when they are neighbours, I also believe that countries should base their ‘development philosophy’ on some form of ideology – yes, even in our time when only capitalism is the going ‘ideology’. I believe it is about time that we again make use of much more sophisticated thinking; the democratic-socialist and social-democratic ways of discussing values and how to organise their societies, are particularly important – and much of the practical politics can find their foundation in the holy books, however, without being orthodox. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, I believe that there is a need for including ideologies and values in the future considerations about their development and their future relations.

Dear reader, I take this opportunity to wish you a Happy Pakistan Day 23 March 2018.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.