Monday September 20, 2021

Pakistan’s true role in Afghanistan

August 17, 2021

In less than two weeks, the situation in Afghanistan has changed dramatically. Many people have been taken by surprise by the swiftness of the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. In the fallout from this change, an easy scapegoat will be a sought after commodity. The easiest and most likely choice? This has always been and will always be, Pakistan. Unfair, of course. But this has been the consistent trend since September 11, 2001. All this despite the substantial improvements Pakistan has enacted to its approach to Afghanistan.

For the last two years, some of Pakistan’s finest diplomatic and intelligence efforts have been led by Special Envoy Mohammad Sadiq and DG ISI Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed, as they have tried to manage and steer the Doha process in a way that achieves three overarching objectives. First, to ensure the minimization of bloodshed in Afghanistan – and make the Afghan people the centre of the conversation. Second, to ensure that the US government (as well as the Chinese, Russians, Turks, Saudis, Iranians, Qataris, Emiratis and others) understand and acknowledge how profoundly central Pakistan has been (and remains) to regional stability and peace. And, third, to ensure that all Afghan actors – both of the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Emirate – understand Pakistan’s perspective on how a post-US withdrawal Afghanistan needs to behave, in order to enjoy Pakistan’s support.

Despite this important contribution to the Doha process, and to the largely bloodless process by which provinces fell to the Taliban, Pakistan continues to face serious hostility from the Western press, and is publicly cold-shouldered by key Western nations. What explains this dichotomy and how can Pakistan gain the respect and authority that its important position and contribution merit? Three steps.

First and foremost, the wisdom and clarity of the civilian and military leadership on what Pakistan’s role is and should be, with respect to Afghanistan, has not permeated even the core members of PM Imran Khan’s cabinet. The in-camera parliamentary briefing by the military top brass did little to inform how many in responsible positions are thinking about the issues. As a result, a special assistant to the PM (SAPM), chose to harangue a young American think tanker, mocking him much in the manner a schoolboy might mock a playground nemesis. A federal minister, (a senior confidante and adviser to PM Khan), shared two juxtaposed images of US humiliation, one from Saigon in 1975 and another from Kabul on Sunday, August 15. Earlier last week, retired two and three star generals had shared gleeful expressions of approval at the impending victory of the Taliban, with one publishing a full op-ed detailing how unfairly the West treats the Taliban.

The urgent discomfort felt by GHQ and Aabpara on these public expressions of contempt for the United States and admiration for the Taliban is clear – with multiple off-the-record briefings being conducted by the army leadership for senior journalists. But these briefings alone will not be enough. PM Khan and the military leadership need to act on messaging on Afghanistan much in the way they have proven they can when they are seized with an issue of importance to them.

What do I mean? Simply this: when it comes to shutting down a talk show host that is supposedly out of line, the said host and his or her platform suddenly vanishes from the discourse. When a channel is out of line, ad revenue decreases. When a columnist is out of line, the column is retired. If the civilian and military leadership are serious about the importance of Afghanistan, they need to institute similar measures for those that are off script on Afghanistan (alternatively, all such measures can be terminated forthrightly, resulting in greater short-term criticism, but more long-term mutual confidence). Otherwise, Pakistan’s enemies (and yes, Pakistan does have enemies) will be able to feast on a wide menu of statements that suggest that the burden of the Doha Shura’s many likely failures in Kabul and beyond, in the days and weeks to come, can be placed on Pakistan’s shoulders.

Second, Pakistan’s important contributions in Doha have not been owned or celebrated by all Pakistani voices. Engaging and empowering those voices is more important than securing good public relations for Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders. It is only through coherent and wide domestic ownership of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policymaking logic and architecture that Pakistan can present a strong case to the world – and especially the naysayers in the Western press and in Western capitals.

How can such coherence be achieved? It is time for a wide-ranging group of political leaders to be appointed to a blue ribbon commission on Afghanistan, (let’s call it the Commission for Peace & Prosperity in Afghanistan). This commission should be led by a PTI leader from either Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan. If I had to choose one, I would choose either Shahzad Arbab, the former bureaucrat and now engineer-in-chief for PM Khan’s reform agenda, or I would choose Pervez Khattak, who has endured a quiet stint at the Ministry of Defence, but who has the political heft and skill to manage a diverse group better than anyone on PM Khan’s team.

Members of this commission must include the full spectrum of Pakistani stakes in Afghanistan, such as leaders from the Newly Merged Districts (such as Mohsin Dawar), leaders from traditional religious parties (such as the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Sirajul Haq), leaders from Karachi (such as Faisal Sabzwari), leaders from the Awami National Party (such as Aimal Wali Khan) and leaders from across the spectrum, including people like Farhatullah Babar and Faisal Karim Kundi of the PPP, Mehmood Khan Achakzai of PkMAP, Shandana Gulzar Khan and Nafeesa Khattak of the PTI, Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI-F, Aneesa Zeb Tahirkheli of the QWP and Amir Muqam of the PML-N. Senior Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan government officials, like Atif Khan and Taimur Khan Jhagra of the PTI should be included in all such commissions, to ensure alignment of its narrative with the KP and Balochistan governments.

This commission would be tasked with framing a long-term approach to three issues related to Afghanistan: one; trade and connectivity, two; refugees, migration and cross-border movement, and three; counterterrorism and security. To prepare this approach, the commission would be given regular briefings by Special Envoy Sadiq and the Aabpara team and could call on a range of experts on Afghanistan, from former foreign secretaries Mohammad Riaz Khan and Salman Bashir, to former officials like Rustam Shah Mohmand, and former senior military officials like Lt-Gen Tariq Khan, and Lt-Gen Waheed Arshad.

In less than three months, this kind of a 'Commission for Peace & Prosperity in Afghanistan' would be able to develop a Pakistani narrative for Afghanistan that had ownership and longevity far beyond any single office holder or officials.

Third, Pakistan must proactively remind the world that it has been (and will continue to be) the primary destination for Afghans when they seek refuge abroad. Pakistan’s record on Afghan refugees has been a shining example of the letter and spirit of Jinnah’s Pakistan: confident, resolute, compassionate, and grand. Yet so much of the chatter, including official channels, seems to have adopted a defensive crouch when it comes to Afghans in Pakistan.

This is self-defeating on two counts. First, there are already upwards of at least 2.5 million Afghans in Pakistan (1.4 million POR card holders, almost one million ACC card holders, several hundred thousand undocumented or wrongly documented Afghans, and tens of thousands of fresh visa-issued Afghan nationals). Second, Afghan refugees and guests are a source of a lot of positives for the economy and society. Whatever risks they represent (including security risks) are minute compared to the positive externalities of their presence in Pakistan. The grand bonus? Refuge for foreigners seeking safety on Pakistani territory is a religious obligation for an Islamic Republic, and a moral imperative for all Pakistanis, as human beings. Pakistan must never shy from it, nor fear it.

Pakistan has never been the primary problem in Afghanistan. We should not allow Pakistan’s enemies to frame falsehoods about Pakistan so easily. The way to do it, in the shortest time possible, requires these three steps. To recap: one, shut down irresponsible commentary by senior officials. Two, establish and empower a full spectrum political commission to draft core Afghanistan strategy. And, three, robustly and unabashedly own and care for Afghan refugees.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.