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A ‘friendly’ Afghanistan? — by Shahid Ilyas

The risk of failure and backfiring are much higher in trying to install a friendly government in a foreign country than in attempts to develop friendly relations with an incumbent government. The failure of Pakistan’s Afghan policy is a glaring example in this regard

Pakistan indeed needs to have a friendly Afghanistan, just as Afghanistan needs a friendly Pakistan. The two countries are dependent on each other for their national security, economic development, peace and social cohesion. Pakistan serves as a trade route for Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is crucial for the fulfilment of Pakistan’s ambitions of becoming an energy corridor for Central Asian oil and gas.

Having said that, the question how the objective of ensuring a friendly relationship between the two countries could be achieved needs analysis and answer. Here we focus on Pakistan’s efforts towards ensuring a friendly Afghanistan.

Since 1976, when Islamic-fundamentalist elements from Afghanistan were given shelter by the Bhutto regime in Pakistan, the strategy of Pakistan’s security and political establishment has been to invest its scarce resources in installing a friendly government in Kabul. Developing friendly relations with an existing government is different from installing a friendly government. The basis of Pakistan’s policy has been to install a friendly government in Kabul at any cost rather than working towards establishing friendly relations with the existing government.

The implementation of each of these two strategies demands different methods. The risk of failure and backfiring are much higher in trying to install a friendly government in a foreign country than in attempts to develop friendly relations with an incumbent government. The failure of Pakistan’s Afghan policy is a glaring example in this regard.

Given its track record and current media and intelligence reports, one can rightly conclude that the Pakistani establishment believes that any group controlling the government in Afghanistan, with the exception of Taliban-style pan-Islamic ideologues, is against its national interests. The groups it perceives as adversaries include the Northern Alliance, the well-to-do and educated segments of Pashtuns as represented by personalities like President Hamid Karzai and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, intellectuals, the Afghan diaspora and indeed all the Pashtuns who reject the Taliban ideology. Therefore, the Pakistani establishment thinks that all these groups need to be kept out of government in Kabul; hence its support for the Taliban.

We need to be assured about the fact that the Taliban are a marginal force in Afghanistan. Support for them even in the Pashtun south and southeast is microscopic. (Those who want them in power in Kabul would like us to believe that they are the future of Afghanistan. But ground realities present a different picture.) Therefore, it is virtually impossible for the Taliban to have control or to have a considerable share in the government in Afghanistan, because of the absence of public support for them. (The fact that the Taliban once did control Kabul is a completely different story, because the Afghans of that time were fed-up with warlords and hence they supported the newly emerged Taliban. They were tested and rejected.) It seems that the only option available to Pakistan — which can also be conducive for its own stability — is to find ways to work with the existing government in Kabul. The failure of 37 years (1973-2010) of efforts and investment in trying to install a government in a foreign sovereign state should be enough for us to realise that this policy is not working.

Pakistan is now reaping what it has sown in the previous three decades, resulting in substantial miseries for its own population, which is already teetering under grinding poverty. Its policy has further pushed Afghanistan towards India, as a result of which India’s influence and involvement in that country is at a record high. Furthermore, this policy has further alienated the Pakistani political and educated Pashtun classes from the state of Pakistan. The Pakistani Pashtuns consider Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan as genocide and a challenge to their identity.

Moreover, Pakistan’s support to the Afghan Taliban gave birth to the Taliban here who are hitting the Pakistani state hard. They are now active in every city, town and village of the country, most notably in Lahore and Karachi. They have not yet appointed ‘shadow governors’. If they do, they are likely to be much stronger than the so-called ‘shadow governors’ in Afghanistan — thanks to Pakistan’s flawed Afghan policy characterised by the establishment of thousands of madrassas in every nook and corner of the country, indoctrinating millions of Pakistani youth, who are ever ready to take up arms at the call for jihad by the mullah, a phenomenon Afghanistan does not face.

Most of us look at Pakistan’s Afghan policy in the context of its enmity with India. This phenomenon is being called the policy of ‘strategic depth’, which means that Pakistan needs Afghanistan as a backyard under its thumb where its forces can retreat in case of a war with India. But too much emphasis on ‘strategic depth’ for understanding Pakistan’s policy looks misplaced. More important than strategic depth in Pakistan’s quest for controlling Afghanistan is its apprehensions regarding the Durand Line. The line, drawn in 1893 by the British imperial power in India, which divided Pashtuns into two groups — the ones living in Pakistan today and the ones living in Afghanistan — has never been ratified by any Afghan Loya Jirga or parliament. The Afghans still lay claim to the Pashtun territories between the Khyber Pass and the river Indus. Pakistan believes that it can get this agreement ratified by Taliban-style and pan-Islamist ideologues, who in any case do not believe in national borders. Interestingly, when the Taliban occupied most of Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, they refused to ratify the Durand Line agreement, saying that the matter will be looked into once Afghanistan was peaceful and proper institutions were in place.

War in Afghanistan produces unrest in Pakistan, given the two countries’ proximity to each other and their ethnic composition. Therefore, considering that the Taliban have almost zero chances to rule Afghanistan or to have a substantial share in the government, Pakistan must find ways of achieving its goal of a friendly Afghanistan by keeping in mind the ground realities. The existence of Afghanistan sans the Taliban is a big possibility on the ground. How far, and when, Pakistan realises this truth will largely determine its own future.

The writer is a freelance columnist hailing from Waziristan. He can be reached at ilyasakbarkhan@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times