By Qudssia Akhlaque
ISLAMABAD, Jan 9: Canada on Tuesday endorsed Pakistan's decision to selectively fence its border with Afghanistan and offered 'better' alternatives to laying landmines which President Pervez Musharraf agreed to examine.
This development clearly suggests that Pakistan could abandon its plan to partially mine the border region which has evoked a negative reaction from the international community.
This transpired at a joint press conference addressed here by the visiting Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Gordon MacKay along with his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Kasuri after their broad-ranging talks that focused largely on the worsening Afghanistan situation, particularly the alleged movement of militants across the border.
Both foreign ministers described their interaction as "very useful and constructive" and they were confident that as a result of their extensive discussions bilateral cooperation in diverse fields would further deepen.
They also reaffirmed their commitment to working together to promote the shared objective of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.
The Canadian foreign minister sounded upbeat about his meeting with the President earlier in the day on the question of tighter border controls and alternative to landmines, almost conveying a tacit commitment from Pakistan that it would give up the idea of mining the border if Canada came up with better options. Mr MacKay mentioned several times during the press conference how pleased and greatly encouraged he was that President Musharraf and Mr Kasuri "expressed the openness" to examine the type of alternatives that Canada was proposing and that other Nato allies could also bring to the table.
Noting that he had indicated quite clearly that Canada was opposed to mining as it ran contrary to a protocol in which Canada had a leadership role and appreciating Pakistan's willingness to continue the dialogue on this issue, Mr Mackay said: "I was most pleased that President Musharrraf has agreed to explore some other options as to how we might manage border movement which has been an issue as far as stemming the activities of the Taliban were concerned. We are very pleased that the President has signalled that he would be open to this discussion and to perhaps having a working group that would focus directly on that subject matter."
He stated: "This openness that has been expressed is a great opportunity to get more engaged on an important issue of which Canada can also be a beneficiary."
Mr MacKay disclosed that a team of Canadian experts in the area of border controls would visit Pakistan shortly to make a formal presentation. He said Canada had a large cumbersome border with North America and it would like to share that experience and some potential lessons with Pakistan on how to manage it. "We want to be part of a solution that avoids using some methods which we feel are not effective and perhaps put more lives at risk," the Canadian foreign minister stated in an obvious reference to landmines.
Elaborating on the type of technical assistance that Canada could provide Pakistan for border controls and management he mentioned the satellite phone technology, aerial surveillance with unmanned and unarmed drones, biometric cards and training of border guards to share technical information across the border.
His message and emphasis was on: "Canada wants to work with Pakistan. We want to be cooperative. We want to be part of the solution."
Replying to a question Mr MacKay said: "Pakistan and Afghanistan have to participate fully in the solution, they don't have to agree and what Canada is hoping is to offer a better alternative in finding a way to control that border."
When Mr Kasuri was asked if Canada came forward with a better and more viable alternative to landmines as a measure to curb illegal border movement, would Pakistan review its decision to mine the border, he said Mr MacKay had offered to put together a group of experts with vast experience in managing the North American border to make concrete suggestions to Pakistan and pointed out that the government had also tasked the Army to come forward with suggestions, adding: "So hopefully what the minister is suggesting will come relatively soon, before we finalize we will definitely give due consideration when the objective is the same." Underscoring that the joint objective of Pakistan and Canada was to make sure that the movement was controlled, he noted: "We would be very happy to receive suggestions from Canada." He categorically stated that Pakistan was determined to control movement across the border and hinted that it would be open to concrete suggestions by Canada whereby the same objective could be achieved by means other than laying landmines.
At one point Mr Kasuri said he and the President had clearly conveyed to the Canadian foreign minister that they were "quite fed up" of constant allegations.
On the fencing question Mr Kasuri said Pakistan was mindful of the need for the people on the two sides to meet with each other and therefore there would also be gated entry and exits at reasonable distances.
Mr MacKay showed understanding of Pakistan's position on the Afghan issue and its frustration at being faced with the allegations. "Nobody in the international community in my view would indicate with any degree of fairness that this is Pakistan's problem alone. That's not fair, that's not reasonable," he declared. He also acknowledged and appreciated the sacrifices and great strides Pakistan had made in controlling the border.
Noting that the stakes were extremely high, he underlined the need to bring international focus of all the countries that have a stake in this and have a meeting of the minds in way that would effectively bring about solutions, not castigate.
Earlier referring to discussions on Afghanistan Mr Kasuri said: "In the context of enhanced monitoring of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, we exchanged views on selective fencing, aerial surveillance, and the use of modern technology like biometrics in border movement." He said the Canadian foreign minister agreed to extend technological assistance to help Pakistan strengthen border controls.
Responding to a question Mr Kasuri said the Canadian foreign minister had agreed, fencing was a good idea and agreed to the need to man the border as well as have movement controls.
On the option of the UN observers on the Pak-Afghan border, Mr Kasuri told a questioner that it was not discussed.
Mr Kasuri also sought help for the repatriation of Afghan refugees across the border and the Canadian foreign minister told him it would be considered seriously.
Responding to a question on Nato's demand that Canada along with other member countries enhance troops presence in Afghanistan, Mr MacKay said
Canada's commitment to Afghanistan and the mission there was very strong and was backed by parliamentary mandate that extends to February 2009. "Canada and other Nato allies are very committed to continuing to build capacity and stability inside Afghanistan," he asserted. However, he hastened to add: "It is evident to all including the Afghan people that Pakistan is a key in this effort to bring about stability, both inside Afghanistan and for the entire region."
On whether Canada backed President Musharraf's call for a Marshall Plan-like effort to help Afghanistan, Mr Mackay said: "Many including your President have talked about a Marshall-type Plan and this is in keeping with the international intention to bring about peace and stability inside Afghanistan." In this context he specifically referred to efforts made by Canada that has a major military deployment inside Afghanistan and is actively engaged in development and reconstruction activities there.
In his opening statement Mr Kasuri said he also apprised the Canadian foreign minister of the status of Pakistan-India peace process, underlining the need for moving from conflict management to the resolution of all outstanding issues, including the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.
Mr MacKay commended Pakistan's initiatives in the area of conflict resolution.
On the bilateral front in a bid to move closer to the vision of a multi-faceted cooperation both sides agreed to institute regular bilateral political consultations between the foreign ministers of the two countries.
Announcing this at the outset Mr Kasuri said: "We have today renewed our commitment to take steps to strengthen bilateral, economic and commercial interaction. We would also be working to expand cooperation in the areas of education, science and technology, and cultural contacts."
Mr MacKay who was on his maiden visit here said in his opening statement that their discussions also focused on strengthening bilateral ties and addressing some of the challenges that they faced in partnership. "I think there is a great spirit there that recognizes we have a strategic important relationship and in particular in our efforts to stem the expansion of global terrorism. And Pakistan of course has an important role, a key role to play in this regard."
He expressed the hope of expanding joint efforts in the area of counter-terrorism cooperation.
Referring to the efforts being made by Canada that has 2,500 soldiers currently stationed inside Afghanistan, to turn back the tide of Taliban and insurgency there, he said: "Again we look to you and to the President to further our cooperation around this issue of the flow of the border."
He noted with satisfaction that Canada's political and military engagement with Pakistan was greater now than it had been at any point in the history of the two countries.
Mr MacKay's opening statement ended on a rather loaded note: "I want to conclude by suggesting that Canada and Pakistan will certainly be working together in the future in areas of democratic promotion. We look forward to further that relationship and promoting free and fair elections," he said.
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