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June 17, 2016

Is our Afghan obsession finally over?


June 17, 2016

Islamabad diary

The question can be rephrased: is ‘strategic depth’ finally buried? We were idiots to get involved in that superpower adventure called the Afghan ‘jihad’. We understood not its ramifications and long-term costs, starry-eyed generals nurturing dreams of Pan-Islamic glory on the back of unrealistic expectations.

Even under Gen Raheel Sharif we clung to the pipedream that Pakistan could deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. This is the impression we conveyed both to the Americans and the Afghans. And when we couldn’t deliver we had to suffer the blowback, both the Americans and the Afghans accusing us of playing double games.

Indeed, we have learned nothing from our Afghan experience. The so-called mujahideen whom we had pampered and fed throughout the Afghan jihad wouldn’t listen to us when they seized power in Kabul. The Taliban whom we had supported wouldn’t listen to us beyond a point when they became rulers of Afghanistan. So what led the Afghan experts in the general staff and the ISI to think that we could carry them to the negotiating table?

Experience, and bitter experience at that, has proved that there is no benefit, no possible advantage, in nurturing Afghan assets – like the Haqqanis or Hikmetyar or anyone else – in the belief that we can somehow become the chaudries of Afghanistan. We never succeeded in the past and we won’t succeed in the future.

China helped Vietnam against the French and the American. That didn’t turn Vietnam into a satellite of China. We know what India did for the creation of Bangladesh. The Awami League is pro-India but Bangladesh as a whole is no satellite of India.

Influence only goes that far and our generals were foolish to think in terms of permanent ‘strategic depth’. Were we thinking that if the Indian army entered Punjab we would find strategic refuge in the mountains of Afghanistan? How far can foolishness be taken?

There are still retired three-star generals and bright stars of the Foreign Office – and I have heard them – who stoutly maintain that Pakistan did the right thing in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan otherwise the Soviets would have attempted to reach the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. There is no cure for such delusionary ideas, at least none in the standard war books. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, both Iran and Turkey had long borders with the Soviet Union. There was no Soviet attempt to reach any warm waters across those countries.

Internal Afghan dynamics sucked the Soviets into intervening in Afghanistan. What holdover of British thinking led our generals and diplomats to think that after Kabul the Soviet army would race down the length of Pakistan and seize Karachi and the Indus Delta?

We shouldn’t have got involved in that superpower game. We did and are still paying the price. But the Afghans are now doing us a favour. Nothing else would have cured our Afghan obsession but the tough line the Afghans are taking vis-à-vis the Torkham border should finally clear the mist from our eyes and drill some sense into our heads.

We have no business getting involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Whoever rules Afghanistan – Pakhtuns, Tajiks or warriors from outer space – is the Afghans’ business, not ours. If the Afghans can’t settle their affairs and war rages there, we are in no position to bring peace to Afghanistan. The Russians tried and failed, the Americans have failed despite trying for the last 15 years? Are we to succeed where those superpowers failed?

Regardless of who rules Kabul we need constructive engagement with Afghanistan so that we can savour Afghan grapes and Afghan dry fruit and buy Afghan carpets and send Afghanistan the things it depends on: Pakistani cooking oil, wheat and other foodstuffs. In the last Afghan elections posters and other election material were mostly printed in Pakistan. This is the kind of exchange we should be after. If we can’t do without the word ‘strategic’, let strategic trade now replace the bogey of strategic depth. For the rest let Afghanistan be left to its own devices.

There should be no place here for something like the Quetta Shura. Let it now become the Kandahar or the Helmand Shura and let the elders of that Shura now move to Afghanistan. We should have nothing to do with Taliban ‘assets’ – we’ve had enough of those. Let all those assets return to the beautiful mountains of Afghanistan. And we should now frame a policy regarding the Afghan refugees.

We have hosted them long enough. We should inform the international community that it is time for them to go home. And we should press upon our American friends that if they are so concerned about the Afghans they should take some of them into their own homeland, no doubt to the extended delight of Donald Trump and those of his way of thinking.

We have done so much for the Afghans. Go to Kabul and you will find that the lingua franca is Urdu, which is a measure of all that Pakistan has done for the Afghans. And yet Pakistan is being kicked by the Afghans and accused of double standards by the Americans. Are we the world’s leading masochists that we revel in this punishment?

The Americans hold us by the scruff of our necks and give us a shake every now and then because they give us 800 million to a billion dollars a year. And we suffer this humiliation because of that largesse. Let us learn to stand on our feet. We won’t be able to do without our begging bowl but at least let us reduce its size. Let us learn to live within our means. And until we learn to do that let us stop calling ourselves an Islamic Republic. What’s Islamic about being amongst the world’s leading debt-seekers?

We say the Americans don’t treat us nicely. Why should they treat us nicely when our leading lights, our blessed statesmen, are always asking for something? We say they use us and discard us. That’s being clever and Americans are clever, otherwise they wouldn’t be the world’s only superpower. The more important question is: why do we allow ourselves to be so used? Why do we give the impression that there stands our honour and it’s all ready to be violated?

And there’s another thing we have to remember about Afghanistan. The best we can hope for with that neighbour of ours is constructive engagement. Friendship of the usual kind will always elude us because of the historical baggage lying between our countries. Afghans of all persuasions don’t recognize the Pak-Afghan border, the Durand Line. We can bend over backwards, do anything for them, but they can never be our friends in the traditional sense because of that border. They will only be satisfied if the border moves to the River Indus, and even when that happens they will ask for the incorporation of the Pakhtoon areas of Balochistan. And if that occurs they will ask for access to the sea.

Hostility with India we inherited because of Kashmir and other historical memories. Hostility with Afghanistan we inherited because of the Durand Line. Let us work in a sustained manner to mitigate those hostilities. In that lies the test of Pakistani statesmanship. But let us not be carried away on the wings of fantasy. Our Afghan hangover has lasted a long time. It’s time we got rid of it.

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