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August 23, 2017

Trumped in Afghanistan


August 23, 2017

US President Donald Trump’s unveiling of his government’s Afghanistan policy should not surprise us. It is as expected. The increased US troops that have been welcomed by Kabul are only going to exacerbate the conflict and give the insurgents an impetus to continue on a war footing.

As anticipated, India was asked to contribute more to the country. After all, Modi and Trump’s ideological and world viewpoints converge dangerously close to each other. Giving a carte blanche to India to extend its role in Afghanistan is – as pronounced by Pakistan’s retiring High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit – nothing but “a recipe for disaster”.

Washington, instead of using this opportunity to reprimand India for its insidious role in Afghanistan vis-à-vis Pakistan, has overlooked the evidence painstakingly conveyed to the Pentagon and the US State Department over the years by Islamabad. It has instead chosen to make its bed with a state whose continued use of military force and deplorable human rights record in Kashmir can only earn it the accolade of state terrorism.

But ‘state terrorism’ is the sword of Damocles hung over Pakistan as a last measure. We, the sponsors of terrorism, shall be labelled as such if we do not do what is being demanded: pull back all support from the Haqqani Network and destroy their safe havens.

Let us view this hypothetically: what if trouble persists in Afghanistan even after our military flushes out every Haqqani man, woman and child from the crevices of the hinterlands, which is most likely? Will Kabul and Washington still point their fingers at some other faction and demand Pakistan stop supporting it?

America’s expedient use of friends and foes is nothing new. We, in Pakistan, have been privy to it for decades and lament it periodically and unabatedly. Yet, we continue to plough on, nurturing our relationship with Washington through the lows and the highs. But this is realpolitik. Though we may have compromised our integrity and national pride at some low points in the past decades, we are a sovereign nation. Do we need these reminders? Yes – and often.

As for the US, it is ready to overlook the human cost we paid in the loss of thousands of our soldiers fighting the war on terror for those ‘billions and billions of dollars’ given to Pakistan. The US wants Pakistan to get serious about clearing the safe havens for all those resisting the government in Kabul and the presence of the foreign forces. But not a word is mentioned about the safe havens operating on the other side of the Durand Line that house the TTP terrorists who use these as bases to launch attacks on Pakistan.

Asking India to extend its ‘political’ and economic role in India is nothing short of asking New Delhi to damage Kabul’s already frayed relations with Islamabad. Not to mention its use of the so-called consulates for destabilisation purposes in Balochistan. Kabul’s ire with Pakistan, stemming in large part from its own inability to bring dissident factions to an agreement, has further deteriorated relations between the two neighbours.

This is extremely unfortunate, given Pakistan’s open-door policy for millions of Afghan refugees during the previous troubled decades. Instead of being discussed and redressed behind closed doors, any grievances are always publicised and exaggerated. Despite all parties agreeing to end the blame game and working closely to alleviate suspicions regarding alleged intelligence operations, the situation remains tenuous.

But first, we need to question our policy towards the US at this very critical juncture. Our relations with our western neighbours, including Iran, are at a low point. Our military and foreign policy – instead of evolving with changing geopolitical dynamics – remains stymied. The turning point in our approach to militancy and ending any alleged support to militant groups had come a while back. Let’s not forget the horror of the massacre of the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 and the reaction that bound the nation together.

However, the lack of unity on the political front and the formulation of a clear and concise policy that has an inherent flexibility to accommodate any developments that threaten our national interests – and not just in the short term – has been our bane. If Pakistan could survive the damage of the past decades and prove its resilience, can it not coalesce together at this point and bridge the faultlines that threaten its own survival? If our policy is to change, it must be for the sake of our own people and not because of external threats.

Pakistan’s help in bringing long-lasting stability to Afghanistan cannot be overlooked. Instead of working together towards an inclusive approach that brings Afghan insurgents to the negotiating table, Kabul and Washington – no doubt out of frustration – have chosen to go back full circle and opt for more boots on the ground. The onus will be on Nato to share the financial and human costs, as Trump has already laid out in his recent speech. And with India thrown in, it is bound to be an even greater morass. It is hoped that our civilian and military leadership put aside their ‘other’ preoccupations at present and formulate a cohesive strategy in response.

The writer was a former deputy opinion editor at Gulf News, Dubai.

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