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July 21, 2021

Narratives of the past

As the Taliban’s victories are gaining momentum in Afghanistan, there appear to be two types of reactions here in Pakistan. One side says that it is up to the people of Afghanistan to decide what kind of government they want.

This line of thinking says that Pakistan has suffered a lot during the past many decades when Afghanistan went through one crisis after another; and Pakistan itself had nothing much to do with what was happening across the borders. We, so the argument goes, have been largely innocent and any blame for the Afghan bloodshed during the past four decades is the making of either foreign powers or of the Afghan people themselves. Pakistan has been trying to facilitate restoration of peace in Afghanistan and any accusations are unjustified and uncalled for.

Those that find this argument appealing are mostly retired ambassadors, bureaucrats, and securocrats who consider themselves specialists in both defence and foreign policies. Since they have served in many countries and have an insight into how national and international politics works, they know what to do and what to say at international forums and on TV channels.

Those that adhere to this argument seem euphoric at the gains the Taliban are making in Afghanistan. Some have even called the Taliban ‘educated’, ‘sophisticated’, and even ‘peace-loving’ people who the world has been rubbing the wrong way. The Taliban, according to this version of history, were the best rulers the Afghan people ever had. As evidence, they cite the ‘peaceful’ five years from 1996 to 2001. There were no atrocities, no crimes, no vulgarity, and of course no evils of the Western world.

This narrative wants to convince us that there was no better neighbour than the Taliban, with the sole exception of China. They say that the Taliban did not allow Afghan soil to be used by India against Pakistan, which all other governments in Afghanistan had been doing. The borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan were almost open and people could move freely. Most of the Afghan economy was dependent on Pakistan, which did all it could to bolster their government even if they had no legitimacy both nationally and internationally.

The other type of reaction in Pakistan emanates from those who think that Pakistan has been on the wrong side of history during the past 40 years in Afghanistan. They feel that the problem began with the third military dictator of Pakistan General Ziaul Haq who had orchestrated the judicial murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, despite appeals from dozens of leaders across the world. Gen Zia was isolated and desperately wanted to continue ruling over Pakistan with an iron fist. His open support to the Afghan Mujahideen endeared him to the Western ‘democratic’ world as well to the right-wing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

This argument says that throughout the 1980s, Gen Zia crushed all democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan but to the Western world he was the ‘right sort of dictator’ whose democratic credentials and legitimacy to rule were missing, but that was not important. As long as he served the purpose of countering the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, he was a blue-eyed boy for the West and for the Middle Eastern potentates who relied on the West for the perpetuation of their own authoritarian regimes. Fundamental rights did not matter much to leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Margret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, and others.

The country remained under the yoke of this most barbaric regime for 11 years. Dollars were pouring in and the people were under control. Anti-establishment politicians of that time considered this as a betrayal by the West led by Reagan and Thatcher who were as close to General Pinochet in Chile as they were with Zia in Pakistan. The threat of communism was highly exaggerated and served as a bugbear to marshal all conservative, dictatorial, and religious elements in societies from Indonesia to Argentina.

This school of thought in Pakistan cautioned in the 1990s that the fallout of the Afghan war would be disastrous for Pakistan too. Intellectuals and leaders such as Abdullah Malik, Abid Hasan Minto, Attaullah Mengal, Benazir Bhutto, Bizenjo, I A Rehman, Jam Saqi, Mazhar Ali Khan, Rasul Bakhsh Palijo, Wali Khan, and many others were unequivocal in their condemnation of the policies pursued by General Zia and his coteries. They considered the Mujahideen as the forces of obscurantism that were trying to put the clock back by playing in the hands of the anti-Soviet powers.

It is true that the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan did play its part in the demise of the USSR and this invasion should have never taken place; but there were other factors also behind the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989, the Najeebullah government tried its best to negotiate a peace deal with the Mujahideen but to no avail. The result was that Najeebullah could not survive but the Mujahideen proved to be equally incompetent, and their internecine wars continued till 1996 when the Taliban took over Kabul.

Thus began an anachronistic and barbaric rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan which only three countries in the world recognized as legitimate: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Those five years of Taliban rule presented a nightmarish situation for nearly all forward-looking and progressive people of Afghanistan. There was a strict limitation on the movement of women who could not educate themselves or work independently. Cinemas, dance, drama, music, and other performing arts were an anathema to the Taliban. Men had to have a compulsory beard in accordance with the Taliban brand of theocracy.

Then there was a desire in the Taliban to export their religious zeal to other countries that resulted in a proliferation of militant groups across the globe. And then came the tragic events of Sept 11, 2001, bringing America to Afghanistan as an occupying force. By that time Pakistan had yet another military dictator General Pervez Musharraf who offered his services to the US and managed to extend his rule for nine years. There was an about-turn in the approach the Pakistani security think tank followed. As the showers of dollars continued, the Taliban became villains and–as PM Imran Khan recently put it – Pakistan got involved in the ‘war on terror’.

Meanwhile, Pakistan had to deal with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who responded to the ‘war on terror’ by targeting both civilian and military areas, buildings, markets, and even schools. Pakistan has lost over 70 thousand people not in fighting against the US or any other neighbouring country. Pakistan lost them fighting against the TTP. And yet we see apologists who want us to believe that the Afghan Taliban are in fact good.

It should never be easy to forget the APS tragedy, the murder of one of the most loved leaders in Pakistan – Benazir Bhutto, the attack on Malala Yusufzai, and the millions of internally displaced people from Swat and erstwhile Fata. The TTP played football with the heads of their victims and posted those videos, they killed civilians and soldiers alike, destroyed hundreds of schools and misled innocent youth to become militants. These crimes are fresh in the minds of those who are politically and socially conscious.

Email: [email protected]

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.