Delegates at a recent civil society conference in Islamabad stressed enhanced co-operation and a more pro-active role by civil societies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to make peace and harmony in the region a reality.
A joint declaration issued at the end of the four-day AFPak Civil Society Forum in Islamabad said, "The Afghan-Pakistan Friendship Association (APFA) is proposed as an umbrella organisation to expand the process of peace building and conflict resolution in the AFPak region by engaging the civil society in the process as the main driving force."
The conference was jointly organised by Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Pakistan's Community Appraisal and Motivation Program (CAMP) in collaboration with the Pakistan International Human Rights Organization and the National Centre for Policy Research at Kabul University with financial support from the German government. About 100 delegates attended the conference.
The conference is an important step toward regional peace, said Stephan Roekan, deputy head of mission at the German embassy in Islamabad.
"Both countries [Afghanistan and Pakistan] need to co-operate with each other for a lasting peace since they are geographic partners […] and a policy of confrontation will not achieve the desirable goals," he said. He called upon both countries to strike a balance in their foreign policies.
Roekan said despite Pakistan's boycott of the Bonn conference, "the international community pledged to work with Pakistan and stand by Afghanistan in order to contribute for peace and stability in the region."
Meetings between Afghans and their Pakistani counterparts are a good step toward building trust and further cement their historic and cultural ties, according to Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Hakim said counter-terror operations have consumed much of the region's development money and stressed the need for close co-ordination between both countries' civil societies to strive for peace in the region.
Dr. Riffat Hussain, chairman of the department of International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said the conference was an exercise in mitigating the tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"It is imperative upon the civil societies of both countries to think thoroughly in coming closer to each [other] and to work together in order to exert our influence on our respective governments," he said.
"The fact of the matter is that our relationship is being hijacked by people who have no support from the masses," he continued. "Civil societies have the capacity and understanding of identifying the thorny issues between the countries and they can recommend ways and means for its resolution."
Afghanistan and Pakistan have many connections such as religion, ethnicity, culture and history, but the relationship has remained strained over the past few decades, according to CAMP chief executive Naveed Ahmad Shinwari.
He said he hoped that setting up the AFPak civil society forum would provide an opportunity to create an understanding, remove mistrust and help strive together for peace in the region.
Khalid Aziz, head of the Peshawar based Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training noted that Pakistan and Afghanistan have both dealt with trying and troublesome times.
"The lives of the two peoples have been engulfed in perpetual tension and sorrow, with the Afghans more than us having witnessed greater upheavals and loss of rights and freedom that began in 1979 and continue into the future," he said.
Civil societies in both countries, he said, were operating under the trying circumstances of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and are currently functioning in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. They have provided health care, education and support for women who were targeted by Taliban.
Hussai Wardak, a female delegate from Afghanistan called for the establishment of a community-based monitoring system in both countries in order to check human rights violations and to ensure gender balance in both neighbouring societies.
"The proposed body will keep an eye on criminals, notorious war lords and extremist elements not to have their presence in the elected parliaments or other legislative bodies," she explained and adding that it will work as a watch dog against such scrupulous elements that she alleged have blocked the path to peace and harmony in the region.
Referring to the conference, Wadir Safi, a professor at the Kabul University said, "this in fact is a peace conference and should be held with regular intervals".
"Such gatherings are a symbol of peace and the more frequently these are held, the greater the chances of peace in the region," he said, adding that the large attendance was a manifestation of love for peace from the people of both countries.