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Pakistan, Afghanistan and politics of US withdrawal- by Shehrbano Taseer

WASHINGTON DC: On Wednesday, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) co-sponsored an event featuring Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian.

The speakers discussed the present crisis in Pakistan regarding the Taliban and other extremist Islamist forces, and what a US/NATO withdrawal would mean for the region and for the future of Pakistan.

The conference was held in the light of a number of recent events: US President Barack Obama’s promises to begin withdrawing US troops out of Afghanistan by the middle of 2011, a new international conference held in Kabul endorsing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s call for Afghanistan to be in charge of its own security by 2014, the vote in Congress on a new supplemental aid bill for Afghanistan, and the release of the WikiLeaks documents.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistani physicist and published commentator on Pakistani current affairs, said that two large threats that Afghanistan faces are the involvement of its neighbours, and the transfer of power crisis. Hoodbhoy said Iran, Russia, India, and Pakistan have interests in Afghanistan and many of them still have much sway in policy. They could intervene again to make sure they have leverage in a number of different ways. Their interests may lie in maintaining the status quo, and destabilising it if they do not see themselves getting there. He was also suspicious of the recent thawing of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hoodbhoy emphasised the need for building of state structure and capacity in Afghanistan, but was not positive it would happen. “There are deep problems in Afghanistan that are characteristic of the condition of third world countries in the world. The problem has been compounded by thirty years of war,” he said. He stated that “Karzai treats Afghanistan like a family business. He has put his relatives in important positions, and rigged the last election.” Fifty percent of all aid money is going into the government, despite renewed concerns of mass levels of corruption and massive embezzlement of aid. He emphasised the need to pressure Karzai for electoral representation and free and fair elections, and to provide development. He said the current US counter-insurgency programme can only address some aspects of a huge phenomenon that will take generations to fix. “Ultimately, the US has to deal with the fact that it will walk away and leave many problems behind. That is not a reason for not going.”

Zia Mian, the director of the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University’s Programme on Science and Global Security, said that Pakistan has suffered immensely for its military fixations. However, Pakistan has changed a lot in the last 5-10 years and is unrecognisable from what it used to be. “Who wants the Americans in Afghanistan,” he asked, adding, “Not me. But the US has to clean up the mess it has created. Those that ask the US to leave in a precipitous rush will be accomplices in genocide.” In terms of what it would mean for Pakistan, Mian stated that Pakistan is “excessively alarmed of India. India is a threat on the eastern border and will be a threat on the western border, via Afghanistan, and will encircle Pakistan.” He said that if the Americans go away now, Pakistan will be tempted to keep its mujahideen assets. He asked the attendees to reflect on what happened in 1996 when the Taliban took control of Kabul. “They are not the Vietnamese who have a positive vision for the future. They are barbarians in the truest sense of the word. They publicly massacred, blew up 2 ,000- year- old Buddhist statues, and forbade jobs and education for women. The same is happening now, and will continue to happen.” Reflecting on the WikiLeaks documents, Mian said, “It has been a great disservice to the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It exposed what the Americans have done and it exposed prior links between Pakistan and the Taliban, but mentioned nothing about what the Taliban have done, will do, and will continue to do.” He said the ISI was in cahoots with the Taliban and the extremists, but there is reason to believe things have changed. The ISI has had three of its headquarters bombed to the ground, and hundreds killed. The Pakistan police and the FIA have had their headquarters bombed and training academies attacked. These attacks have only escalated in ferocity.

First published in Daily Times Pakistan