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Fifth column

February 23, 2020

Afghanistan: two memoirs

Opinion

February 23, 2020

The growing rancour between incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over the Afghanistan presidential election results threatens the hopes for a better future that were kindled by the possibility of the US-Taliban rapprochement and a ceasefire.

When Syed Abrar Hussain was posted in Kabul as Pakistan’s ambassador in early 2014, the situation was similarly tense because the same contenders were hopeful of a presidential victory. He maintained good relations with both and remained in constant touch.

In the first round, Abdullah polled 45 percent compared to Ghani’s 31 percent, but the second round propelled Ghani to victory by a whopping million vote margin. This provoked deep resentment among Abdullah whose supporters wanted him to form a parallel administration. Thanks to a sustained intervention by US-led diplomatic efforts the situation was saved and Abdullah was absorbed in a hastily created and largely symbolic position of the Chief Executive. The situation is repeating itself as Abdullah and his ally Rashim Dostum are threatening to form a parallel government after they have rejected Ghani’s re-election.

In his recently published memoirs in Urdu, ‘Afghanistan – Mullah Omer say Ashraf Ghani Tak’ (IPS Press, Islamabad), Hussain mentions several interesting anecdotes and observations during his service in Afghanistan; first as consul general in Kandahar dealing with the Taliban and later as ambassador in Kabul working with outgoing Karzai and incoming Ashraf Ghani.

He suggests heavy involvement of Indian money in Afghanistan’s media, which mushroomed after the Taliban ouster. He laments that many Afghan politicians are under direct Indian influence, which is programmed to sabotage Pakistan-Afghanistan relations at any cost. He also maintains that the Afghan intelligence, NDS, pushed politicians to issue anti-Pakistan statements.

Before the 2014 presidential elections, Hussain met with all politicians of import including the main rivals – Ghani and Abdullah – who showed a strong desire to improve relations with Pakistan. “But soon after coming to power they surrendered to the influence of the Indian lobby”.

The author claims that on several occasions there were efforts to harm Pakistani diplomats who were saved due to prior information. The suicide bombing at the Jalalabad consulate that killed six Afghan policemen and injured a Pakistani staffer was blamed on Isis, but no proof was provided.

At the peak of Taliban rule, Hussain served as consul general at Kandahar where he met with Mullah Omar on several occasions. But these meetings were largely unprofitable for Pakistan. For example: in 1999 when the Nawaz Sharif government tried to influence the Taliban to hold dialogue with the Northern Alliance to forge a unity government, they refused. Similarly, during General Musharraf’s rule, the Taliban refused to accept the Pakistani demand to cancel the intended plan to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Hussain, who was present at this high-level meeting, recounts how Mullah Omar refused to oblige mainly because it had been decreed by the local religious leaders who believed the statues could lead to corruption in future. At the end of his book, the author suggests some prescriptions for a better Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship.

During his time at Kabul, Ambassador Hussain was involved in negotiating the release of a Pakistani journalist, Faizullah Khan, who was seized by Afghan intelligence and accused of being a spy. Hussain credits the outgoing president Hamid Karzai for his release but the victim contests that. Khan blames Karzai for deliberately delaying his freedom, thereby prolonging his ordeal in a prison that was a hellhole, particularly for Pakistanis. But it was still better than the rough torture that he experienced within the interrogation centres before moving to a ‘proper prison’.

Khan, in his enthusiasm to produce some exclusive news reports, had made an unauthorised trip to Afghan, a centuries-old tradition for the local tribes that straddle the border. The apparent diurnal routine for millions became his crime in the eyes of the Afghan security establishment led by NDS. He was beckoned by an invitation from the TTP leader Ehsanullah Ehsan who has been in the news recently after he apparently fled from custody.

Khan’s entry into Afghanistan was smooth and his meeting and interview with Ehsan were hassle-free but as he left the TTP headquarters somewhere in Nangarhar, he believes he was betrayed by the driver supplied by his host who virtually turned him over to the NDS.

Faizullah Khan narrates his six-month-long ordeal in custody in his well-received book, ‘Durand Line ka Qaidi’, published by ZAK Books, Karachi. The book while narrating factual incidents offers a lived experience of the socio-political and cultural overlap that informs the political and militant groups of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is important to appreciate the dynamic the authors offers, which often gets overlooked by Pakistan and Afghanistan when they accuse each other of harbouring militants or when the US-led Western powers make a laundry-list of unending and unrealistic demands on Pakistan. Ever since the US-led ‘war on terror’, Pakistan has been pushed to “do more” and any failures of the most advanced military coalition are summarily blamed on Pakistan.

Both the books are humble, honest and empathetic, and depict the ordinary side of diplomacy and journalism. It is rare for a diplomat who has had quite an eventful career to write a memoir to be so brief and simple, and bereft of any grandstanding. Similarly, Faizullah’s account remains faithful to his basic vocation of reporting as he narrates events in granular detail. This enhances its appeal and value.

I hope both these books are translated into English to afford valuable insights to a larger audience.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli