Some inconvenient truths

September 21, 2022

Afghan spectators’ angry and violent reaction to the defeat by Pakistan at the Asia Cup has disappointed Pakistanis. Many feel outraged by the Afghans’ ‘ingratitude’ after...

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Afghan spectators’ angry and violent reaction to the defeat by Pakistan at the Asia Cup has disappointed Pakistanis. Many feel outraged by the Afghans’ ‘ingratitude’ after Pakistan had done so much for them -- hosting millions of refugees and helping Afghanistan free itself from the Soviet occupation. In the process Pakistan suffered an incalculable harm, from the blowback of that conflict and also of the Afghanistan war that followed years later to clean up the mess created by the first one. But ask the Afghans and they have an entirely different interpretation of these historical events. So where does the truth lie? The fact is that the truth is too inconvenient for both sides to conduct an honest search for it, much less face it.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have had a tortuous shared history that has left behind a complicated legacy of a divided ethnicity straddled along their border. The remote origins of the two countries lie in part in the centuries of relationship between Central Asia and ancient India, a past that has oppressed their present. The first stone was cast by Afghanistan after 1947 when it voted against Pakistan’s admission in the UN. And the relationship has never recovered since. Even when it was normal it was uneasy like now.

So much has happened in the history of this restless relationship. The two countries have a whole border that Kabul does not recognize and has irredentist claims. Both have harboured each other’s dissidents for decades. And each alleges that the other has been providing sanctuaries to terrorists and insurgents operating against it, or has made friends with the other’s enemies. Pakistan is right to have perceived Afghanistan as a troublesome neighbour but has been wrong in seeking solution of the problem with interventionist policies.

What the two countries did to each other got tied to the outside players -- superpowers, regional rivals, sub state actors, transnational terrorists -- so much so that the rights and wrongs of the issues between them are now hard to disentangle. The biggest damage to the truth has been done by the two wars and the pain they caused.

Wars are never about a single issue. Countries go to wars for more reasons than one --some are stated some remain unstated. The US, Pakistan and Afghanistan all went to wars or became partners in the war in the 80s and after 9/11 for many different reasons. Pakistan did host millions of Afghan refugees. And it was at one level an act of generosity for which we would like the Afghans to be grateful. But Pakistan did more than that.

Pakistan had its own security interests in mind. Besides, the Zia regime, and that of Musharraf that came later had their own interests in view which they thought would be well served by getting the US-Pakistan relationship revived. The relationship would give them international legitimacy. And the aid that came with it would enable both to prolong their rule. Not to mention Pakistan hoping it would also lead to the installation of a friendly regime in Kabul. The refugees were the cost Pakistan had to bear for the achievement of this package of objectives.

While both Zia and Musharraf gained enough and went on to rule for years, the gain to Pakistan’s national interest was limited and mixed, and brought more harm than benefit. Pakistan’s loss was triple -- at the hands of their policies as well as at the hands of Americans and Afghans. Not to mention the damage done by assorted adventures and jihadists from the region and beyond. And in this entire process Pakistan was penetrated by radical outfits and extremist influences. The consequences are before us.

As for the Afghans ,they are within their right to make their own assessment of what Pakistan’s actions did to them. Any sense of obligation over Pakistan having hosted millions of refugees and helped the Afghans liberate their country from the Soviet occupation is obscured by Pakistan’s other motives and how they affected the domestic dynamics within Afghanistan. Yes, Afghanistan was liberated from the Soviet occupation, and now according to Imran Khan the “chains of slavery” have been broken with the US withdrawal. But what did the Afghan get after being ‘liberated’, a process in which Pakistan helped not once but ‘twice’? The Taliban. Would Pakistan wish to be ruled by them? If not, why do we think it is good for the Afghans.

Many Pakistanis may like to believe the Afghan Taliban to be a great nationalist resistance which defeated a mighty superpower but this is a very simplistic view, more a measure of anti-American sentiments than a reflection of the truth. Pakistan may not have been a party to the conflict but was very much part of the conflict. A New York Times report on January 16, 2020 had this to say about the Taliban Pakistan liaison: “Members of the Taliban negotiating team repeatedly traveled from Doha…to consult with the group’s leaders and commanders in Pakistan, where they enjoy havens.” Another New York Times report on the eve of the signing of the US-Taliban deal said: “Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban deputy leading the talks, traveled to Pakistan and held several large meetings, some with as many as 300 senior and mid-level commanders and officials, to bring them on board with what he said was the best deal he could negotiate.”

The fact is that none of the three major players -- the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- occupy moral high ground. They all three need to do some introspection. The Americans had no strategy. They fostered and rewarded warlords, undermining Afghanistan’s stability and development. And sustained corrupt leadership in Kabul in the name of democracy. Most importantly, they had no understanding of Afghan history or culture.

As for the Afghans, they must share the bulk of the responsibility for what has happened to their country. Afghanistan has serious fault lines -- ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and tribal. They must understand that Afghanistan’s troubles go beyond the Taliban challenge. Afghanistan began unraveling with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973 long before the emergence of the Taliban and Afghans have done nothing meaningful to fix their foundational problems.

The elitist-led and Pashtun-dominated pre-1973 Afghanistan that provided false stability and limited progress cannot be recreated. There are conflicts within the conflict in Afghanistan -- aggravated by the war economy that benefited drug mafia, criminal elements, corrupt politicians and warlords creating powerful stakeholders in the country’s instability. Afghanistan’s experience with democracy had been too superficial to resolve the country’s fundamental challenges.

Afghans have failed in achieving a country that is at peace with itself and with the countries in the region. It has continued to provide opportunities and temptations to its neighbours to intervene to their advantage. When there are easy opportunities for neighbours, they are not always discreet and careful about following good policies.

Afghanistan’s neighbours too, especially Pakistan, have to realize that ultimately an Afghanistan that is peaceful, stable and inclusive is a better bet rather than one led by a radical ideology that is a flagship of extremism in the region holding its future hostage.

And finally some advice to both Afghanistan and Pakistan: they should resolve never to get involved in another American war. America’s war aims will always be different from theirs. And that is a recipe for endless tensions.

Of course, these are long-term questions. The challenge for Pakistan and the international community now is how to deal with the Taliban by avoiding another conflict and a complete collapse. And, most importantly, how to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of its unfortunate population. Politics, regional rivalries and geopolitics should take a back seat for now. Afghans are a great people and they have suffered enough for over four decades. The international community must find a way of helping them while still being firm with the Taliban.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and senior visiting research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

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