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Afghanistan: Musharraf, Karzai Exchange Warm Words And Pledge Cooperation

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, arrived in Afghanistan today for talks with interim-government head Hamid Karzai. Pakistani-Afghan relations have often been troubled, but both leaders said they were determined to foster close ties between the countries.

Kabul, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- General Musharraf visited neighboring Afghanistan today, following up on a visit paid to his country by Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai earlier this year.

Security considerations meant that Pakistan waited until yesterday to announce Musharraf's trip to the Afghan capital, Kabul. The Afghan government likewise confirmed Musharraf's impending visit only hours before his plane left Islamabad.

Karzai and Musharraf conducted talks at the sprawling presidential palace near the center of Kabul. They later held a joint press conference characterized by humor and expressions of apparent warmth, with both leaders referring to each other as "brother."

Karzai said many in Afghanistan's interim government had been eagerly anticipating Musharraf's trip. He praised Pakistan for giving shelter to millions of refugees who fled Afghanistan following the Soviet occupation. He also thanked Musharraf for aid sent to Afghanistan following the devastating earthquake in the country's northern Baghlan Province in late March.

Karzai said his talks with the Pakistani president covered a range of topics, including trade and cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

"We discussed various issues: the issues of refugees, the issues of transit, trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the issue of flights to begin between Afghanistan and Pakistan between various cities, the issue of our joint fight against terrorism and the prevention of sanctuaries to terrorists on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and our joint work against narcotics trading and poppy cultivation," Karzai said.

Musharraf said he was saddened by the widespread destruction he had seen in Kabul and said Pakistan wants to help Afghans rebuild their country. "Pakistan has only one aim: to assist Afghanistan and to assist my brother sitting here [Karzai] and his government in doing whatever he wants to do in Afghanistan. Our plan is his plan. We will assist him all the way in what he wants to do here. We have also vowed that we will not allow each other's country ever to be used against the interest of [the other]," he said.

Musharraf said he feels at home in Afghanistan. He said the two countries are linked by a common history and shared the same rivers, mountains, geography, culture, and religion. "There is no scope whatsoever for doing anything other than being brothers, working in mutual interest, and under the present circumstances, when our brothers here need more assistance, I would like to say working in Afghanistan's interest, because they are more needy than [we are]. Therefore, I have no reservations in saying that we will work in Afghanistan's interest all the way," Musharraf said.

Relations between the two countries have not always appeared so warm. Following the creation of Pakistan in 1947 -- when former British colony India was divided into independent Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan -- the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan remained the one that the British had drawn up to mark the boundary of their empire. That placed nearly half of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, on the Pakistani side of the border.

Afghanistan pressed for either the creation of an independent Pashtun state, or for Pakistan's Pashtun regions to be joined to Afghanistan. Pakistan has resisted both options, and tension over the issue led to Afghanistan being the only United Nations member state to oppose Pakistan's entry into the international organization. It also led to armed conflict between the two states in the 1960s.

When an Afghan journalist at today's press conference tried to ask Musharraf about the border issue, however, Karzai cut the question short.

Many Afghans believe that successive Pakistani governments have worked to undermine Afghan unity in order to ensure that Afghanistan would never gain sufficient power to unite all the Pashtun territories or challenge Pakistan's regional ambitions.

Some Afghans also blame Pakistan and its ISI intelligence service for supporting and bringing to power the extremist Taliban regime and its Al-Qaeda allies who brought misery to Afghanistan before being overthrown in the U.S.-led campaign. Some members of the interim administration were leaders of forces that spent years battling Taliban rule and looked on Pakistan -- one of just three countries to officially recognize the regime -- with much the same enmity.

But Musharraf said the people of the two countries had shared enough history over the centuries to overcome the bitterness of recent events: "These two countries have lived like brothers all through the ages. We have historic, cultural, religious, [and] geographic links. Sometimes there are differences between brothers, and I have no reason to believe that we cannot overcome these differences. I have met all the leadership here and I'm prepared to meet anyone. These differences are in the short-term context. I'm very sure that with the passage of time, all these differences will be sunk."

Musharraf said neither religious extremists nor Pakistan's intelligence service can thwart his aim of forging friendly links between the two countries. He noted that a suspected Al-Qaeda member recently arrested in Pakistan is thought to be Abu Zubaydah, a top aide to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He said the man has been handed over to U.S. authorities.

Regarding bin Laden himself, neither Musharraf nor Karzai could say where he was or whether he is alive or dead. Karzai said, "I don't really know where bin Laden is. That's what President Musharraf said [also]. If we find out that he's alive somewhere, we'll definitely go and look for him."

Musharraf said that in the fight against terrorism there is no need for U.S. forces in Afghanistan to pursue Taliban or Al-Qaeda groups into Pakistan because the Pakistani Army can cope on its own.

Musharraf also said cooperation between his forces and the U.S.-led coalition against terror is very close. He said the U.S. has not asked for the right to pursue enemy groups into Pakistan. "Within Pakistan there is no problem. Our law-enforcement agencies [and] our armed forces will act. Information needs to be given, and that is given by the coalition and the United States and we move. And this is functioning very well. There's no requirement of a change in this modality [arrangement]."

Karzai announced that his government will look into the release of the hundreds of Pakistanis being held prisoner in Afghanistan who he says were duped into fighting on the side of the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

At the end of the press conference, Musharraf presented Karzai with an envelope containing a check for $10 million to help in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Karzai thanked Musharraf and jokingly asked whether he could open the envelope to confirm if there was really a check in it. Drawing laughs from both Afghan and Pakistani officials gathered at the press conference, Musharraf said, "I hope it's not empty."

Few Afghans were aware of Musharraf's arrival in their capital. Only small groups of onlookers gathered outside the Kabul airport and the presidential palace to catch a glimpse of the Pakistani leader. Some expressed hope that Musharraf's visit would mark a new and better relationship between the two countries. Shopkeeper Ahmen Rahman said he is "optimistic that after Musharraf's visit the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan will get better."

But others expressed lingering suspicions regarding Pakistan's intentions. One, a soldier armed with a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade launcher, guarding a point on the route of Karzai and Musharraf's convoy from the airport, said he had fought against the Taliban for six years as a member of the Northern Alliance forces. He said he could not trust Musharraf, whose government had supported the Taliban and then turned against it because of U.S. pressure.

Medical student Mustafa Sidiqi said he remains suspicious of Musharraf and of Pakistan. He said he spent years in Pakistan as a refugee and that he, like many other Afghans, had been treated poorly. "We Afghans never like traitors or two-faced people, and we have always tried to be on good terms with our neighboring countries. But some of our neighboring countries, for reasons I don't understand, have been interfering and intervening in our internal affairs. I'll be optimistic regarding [Musharraf's] visit if they don't come to our country like a wolf in sheep's clothing or a snake in the grass."

Sidiqi admitted that Pakistan has provided shelter to millions of Afghan refugees. But he said Pakistan has also promoted and taken advantage of Afghanistan's troubles. He, and many other Afghans, will now be waiting to see if Musharraf's visit really heralds the beginning of a new era in relations between the two countries.