The recent visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has once again triggered a debate over Pakistan’s Afghan policy, something that has been debated in the past as well. Some critics go to the extent of criticising not only our Afghan policy but our policy towards India, other regional countries and the Middle East as well. Many assert it is flawed and will lead to a catastrophic situation if it is not changed in the near future.
The critics of Pakistan’s foreign policy tend to take a moralist position, arguing what the states should be doing instead of thinking what political entities opt for in the real world. For instance, many debunk Pakistan’s fears regarding growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. They tend to believe that New Delhi’s strong presence in the war-torn country poses no danger to Islamabad. Pro-establishment analysts argue that India is already on our eastern border, flexing its muscles in a conventional way and resorting to unprovoked shelling or firing every now and then. Given this, why should Islamabad want the presence of its arch enemy in Afghanistan as well, something that will sandwich the Islamic republic and provide New Delhi an opportunity to squeeze it at will?
The argument may sound bizarre, but do states allow the presence of its enemies on either side of their borders in the real world? For instance, the US – through the Munroe Doctrine – did not declare just one or two countries but in fact the entire Western Hemisphere as its backyard. It did not let any Western power establish hegemony in that backyard. Some may argue that the Monroe Doctrine was altruistic in nature, aimed at ridding the Western Hemisphere of colonialism. If that were the case, then the very idea of colonialism should have become abominable for Washington. In reality, the selfless leadership of the US colonised the Philippines decades later.
Many Latin-American authors claim that the US became a hegemon in their region and was averse to the idea of having any hostile government in its backyard. This was one of the reasons it helped topple Jacobo Arbenz’s government in Guatemala in 1954, Allende’s in 1973 and a number of other democratic governments in that region. In addition to that, it made the life of anti-American governments miserable by triggering a civil war or supporting militants and militias in those states. For instance, it gave blanket support to the Contras of Nicaragua. The US did not even allow hostile groups or revolutionary parties in its backyard, helping dictatorial regimes eliminate such anti-American radical groups. The ruling elite of the biggest power went berserk when a small revolutionary group dislodged a Washington puppet in Cuba in 1959; the US resorted to pushing not only Cuba but the entire world on the brink of a nuclear war.
The purpose of this detail is to show that no country allows any hostile government in its backyard. This is not only the story of the US. Other states also do the same. For instance, Israel has been making hectic efforts to ensure the expulsion of Iranian troops from Syria. Despite the assurances held out by Russia that Iranian troops will stay over 50 kilometres from the borders of the Jewish state, Tel Aviv does not seem content and has hit many Iranian targets in Syria. Iran does not even border Israel. So, in the case of Israel it is not ready to accept the existence of its enemies even beyond its backyard. Turkey is also currently making efforts to ensure that the Kurds of Syria do not get enough power to threaten the security of Ankara.
In recent years, India has also become hegemonic in the region. Most of the governments in its backward prefer to toe New Delhi’s line. None of them can afford to antagonise the mighty country. Imagine: if there were suddenly a jihadist or hard-line Islamist government in Bangladesh or the Maldives, would New Delhi tolerate it? Did New Delhi not send troops to Sri Lanka to wipe out the Tamils? India does not border Sri Lanka. There is no land link between the two countries. Even then New Delhi did not allow a hostile group to take firm root in Sri Lanka because that could have affected India’s own Tamil population, plunging the country into turmoil with far-reaching strategic consequences.
In real politics, the behaviour of states is not regulated by moral principles but dictated by strategic factors. When it comes to the Afghan imbroglio, only Pakistan faces scathing criticism, some of which may be justified. But to put the entire blame on Islamabad for the plight of the Afghan people is not fair. For instance, Islamabad fought a Western war during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was Washington that declared the Afghan Mujahideen, who are extremely anti-American now, as great crusaders fighting the evil empire, and touted Jalaluddin Haqqani as a precious asset. These are the very same people who are now bent on annihilating American and Western troops in Afghanistan. And it was again Washington that turned a blind eye towards the developments that were taking place in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, leaving Pakistan to deal with it without any financial or other support.
Washington’s policy towards the Afghan Taliban remained opaque. It asked Islamabad to crack down on these militants but allegedly established secret contacts with Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar. It exhorted Pakistan to kick out the famous Quetta Shura because the Taliban were terrorists in Washington’s view, but then it also helped the cloistered group of extremists to open their political office in Doha. Pakistan facilitated talks between the Taliban and other stake-holders but first the news of Mullah Omar’s death was leaked out and later Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was said to have been very keen to hold talks, was killed.
Washington never bothered to hold any inquiry into the leak regarding Mullah Omar’s death. Nor did it try to assess the damage that was caused to the prospect of peace in the war-torn country by the assassination of Mullah Akhter Mansour. If you award someone, who is inclined to talk, with death then what do you expect from his followers?
So, if Afghanistan continues to bleed, then maybe more than one stakeholder is responsible for it. The sagacity lies in supporting talks, no matter where they are held. Therefore, it is important that – instead of casting aspersions on Pakistan or lambasting its desire to have a friendly government in Kabul – which every state wants, Washington and its allies should not only promote quadrilateral talks but welcome talks in Russia or any other part of the world as well so that the people of war-torn Afghanistan can have some relief from the violence that surrounds them.
The writer is a freelance journalist.