The shifting sands in Afghanistan

July 25, 2021

Although there are many people who would warmly welcome Pakistanis, there is a palpable shift in ordinary Afghans’ perceptions of Pakistan. There is a sense of burgeoning mistrust that merits reflection

A general view of green zone in Kabul, Afghanistan March 2019. — Photo courtesy Reuters
A general view of green zone in Kabul, Afghanistan March 2019. — Photo courtesy Reuters

When I decided to visit Afghanistan in the last week of June everyone around me advised otherwise – particularly in the context of the ongoing security situation in Kabul and the surrounding areas. My visit to Afghanistan and interactions with the people revealed a sense of burgeoning mistrust.

The day after we landed in Kabul, we were recording a news piece for Geo News in Shahr-i-Nau (new city), the main market of Kabul, a middle-aged passer-by addressed me and the cameraperson, “Hey, you Pakistanis are doing propaganda against Afghanistan from our own soil?”

Although there are people who would warmly welcome Pakistanis, there is also a palpable shift in ordinary Afghans’ perceptions of Pakistan. To some extent, this is also noticeable in some government officials I interacted with. During my time in Kabul and my interactions with Afghans, I tried to explore this shift.

Pakistan had hosted more than 3 million Afghan refugees during and after the Cold War. The Afghans who had spent time in Pakistan have good memories. I found many Afghans who showed love and fondness for Pakistan and its people. However, they too were critical of the Pakistani government and the powerful establishment. When it came to talking about the Taliban, they criticised the Pakistani government and establishment. Even those who were critical of their own government, would be on the same page when it came to discussing the Taliban.

There is a notably popular perception in Afghan government, intelligentsia and common folk that the recent wave of Taliban violence leading to occupation of almost 80 percent of its districts is backed by Pakistan and its powerful establishment. Pakistani officials strongly deny this allegation. However, Afghan intellectuals claim that the allegations are “not based on mere hearsay.” They say there is clear evidence that the leaders of Taliban militants are living in Pakistan. In this environment, the incident of kidnapping and torture of the Afghan ambassador’s daughter in Islamabad has further fuelled the distrust.

Unfortunately, many Pakistanis have always seen, or at least, were shown Afghanistan through the lens of Taliban. We have, at various points, admired the Taliban and idealised them without realizing that they were to Afghanistan what the defunct Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was to Pakistan. Although the Americans are on their way out of this conflict, they are leaving behind a markedly different society. While the fissures may be deeper and more perilous than before, the high-rise buildings, urban cleaning system, mobile and internet access, and educational institutes that have been brought in or modified in some cases, present a contrast with the Taliban government that is jarring and underlines the complexity of present-day Afghanistan.

The investment by the US and its NATO allies have created business and work opportunities. Most of the Afghanistan’s population of almost 32 million people is concentrated in urban areas. They want to see their businesses going, schools and societies progressing and they are against the Taliban and their ideology. It is pertinent to mention that the Taliban have occupied almost 200 out of total 412 districts of the 34 provinces in the country. In terms of land under control, the Taliban have made significant headway but in terms of how the population is distributed, the government still retains the balance of power – albiet shrouded in fear and uncertainty.

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“I don’t like the Taliban. They were very strict during their rule in our country. There was law and order in the country but we were not allowed to party and go out with our women,” said a taxi driver when I asked him about his opinion regarding the Taliban and their way of governance.

In urban areas, I found that there was a general sentiment against the militant organisations led by Taliban in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul is on the same page.

During my interaction with Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the Afghan foreign minister, I found him very logical and persuasive.

I asked him a simple question, “Who do you think is behind the Taliban?”

“The Afghan nation would not see who is supporting the Taliban – they would see who has brought them to the negotiation table to resolve the issue,” answered Atmar. He emphasised that Pakistan must play its role in bringing about peace and a permanent ceasefire in his country. I found Atmar to be a seasoned politician who appears serious about resolving all issues via dialogue.

Atmar was also very clear that the Taliban were not the only people fighting against their government. He was of the opinion that the internationally-recognised militant outfit Al Qaeda and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan were also fighting alongside and against Afghanistan. When I asked if Al Qaeda had a presence in Afghanistan, he said that it was not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said his government was aware of the locations in Pakistan and Afghanistan where Al Qaeda members were killed and arrested. His response made it clear that in his view these militant organisations were not only present in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. He said they were a threat to both and Pakistan should understand this.

Atmar also said that there were some regional militant organisations too. In this regard, he mentioned the TTP, the Lashkar-i-Tayba, the Jaish-i-Mohammad, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Ansarullah and the Jundullah. He said all these were allied with the Taliban. He was of the opinion that the terrorism threat was not limited to Afghanistan but could spread to China, Pakistan, India, Russia and the Central Asian States.

Besides the Taliban and their reported connections with international and regional militant organizations, the main question remains whether the Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government has had the capacity to push the Taliban back or at least maintain control over the urban centres? This question is linked to the role played by the international community, as well as to the internal politics of Afghanistan.

There are reports that the Hamid Karzai-led political establishment has turned against Ghani and they want him to step down, a demand the Taliban has already tabled. Ghani is supported by his ‘kitchen cabinet’ which believes that the Afghan army has the capacity to safeguard the cities given their access to modern warfare. The international community has a key role to play in ensuring that a permanent ceasefire can be enforced in the country. Achieving peace and stability might take a long time but it is important to keep the hope alive.

The writer is an investigative journalist at The News and Geo TV. He is the author of The Secrets of Pakistan’s War on Al-Qaeda.Twitter: @AzazSyed

The shifting sands in Afghanistan