For the world powers and our neighbours, Islamabad remains central to Afghanistan’s fragile peace process. Yet, directly or indirectly Pakistan often is being portrayed as the “fall guy” in this protracted conflict. On the one hand Pakistan’s role is seen as pivotal for reconciliation and stability in this war-torn country, while on the other, many distracters call Pakistan the biggest impediment in achieving this goal.
However, the bottom-line is that expectations from Pakistan are huge and can be described often as self-contradictory and unrealistic if seen in the right context. For instance, Pakistan is expected to halt the two-way cross-border movement of Afghan insurgents and local and foreign militants but its hands are tied as it is not being allowed to place an effective control mechanism on more than 2,700 km long porous frontier with Afghanistan. Kabul has been consistently rejecting all endeavours of Pakistan i.e., fencing, mining or putting bio-metric system on the international border. It also doesn’t want any effective immigration regime to check, regulate and monitor the cross border flow of people. Still Pakistan is unrealistically expected to raise an iron-wall out of nothing to check the flow of militants on both the sides of the border.
Similarly, Islamabad is persistently being asked to help prevent the Afghan Taliban from launching attacks against the Kabul government. However, little is being done on the other side of the border for establishing government’s writ or winning the hearts and minds of Pashtun tribes, which feel alienated and see the Kabul government with deep suspicion and mistrust. Afghan government’s weak writ over its territory provides all the operating space to insurgents. But Islamabad is unrealistically expected to control the pace of war from the other side of the international border Line.
Pakistan is also expected to play a decisive role in the reconciliation attempts in Afghanistan. By this, Kabul and its patrons, including the United States, expect Islamabad to deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. They also want Pakistan to coax the Islamic militia to make a deal, which is favourable for Kabul. This list of these huge expectations doesn’t end here. Pakistan is also being simultaneously pressurized to start a crackdown on the Afghan insurgents, who allegedly operate from the Pakistani soil. In a nutshell, the paradoxical demand is that the Pakistani Armed Forces fight the Taliban and at the same time deliver them for peace talks.
Then we have the complication of the sustained propaganda campaign being carried out against Pakistan from across the border. Whenever Afghan insurgents resort to a terror attack or make battlefield gains, Kabul and its patrons are quick to directly, or indirectly point fingers at Pakistan and try to hold it responsible for their own failings. This blame game – started and perfected by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his some western sponsors – continues even today albeit in fits and starts. Ashraf Ghani’s ascend to power triggered hopes of greater cooperation and confidence building measures between the two countries, but powerful elements in Kabul continue to create mistrust and poison the relationship.
Indeed, Pakistan has been transformed into the proverbial ‘whipping boy’ and scapegoat not only by its critics, but some most allied allies. (In the English courts of 16th and 17th centuries, ‘whipping boy’ used to be an official position, entailing a young boy assigned to a young prince. Whenever the prince misbehaved, committed mischief or failed in his schoolwork, ‘whipping boy,’ faced consequences and the punishment.)
Pakistan confronts a similar dilemma. It is being painted black, defamed and criticized sometimes officially and more frequently unofficially by the western media through planted reports and skewed comments and analysis for jobs, which the “royalty” of today’s world failed to do properly. The thrust of both the official and unofficial tirade against Pakistan is that it is not doing enough in the global fight against terrorism and extremism.
Officially Washington and its allies are often full of praise for the role, sacrifices and contributions of Pakistan in this war, but their media and think-tanks routinely accuse Pakistani Armed Forces and intelligence agencies of playing a double-game. By this, they mean that Pakistan is not going all out against terrorist groups and supporting, sponsoring and protecting the select ones among them. Most such analysis and reports are based on shadowy unnamed ‘top diplomatic’ and ‘security officials.’
The western media continues to push the line that Pakistan uses proxies to further its agenda in Afghanistan. With the Indian propaganda weaved into this narrative, Pakistan is being painted as a “perfect villain” or a “rouge state”. These complete lies and half-truths – presented without context – do have buyers in a world where many individuals, organizations and states are looking for ways to pass on the blame of failures, half-done jobs, short-comings and poor strategy on others.
For instance, such propaganda blames Pakistan for serving as the epicentre of Islamic militancy, but deliberately ignores its historical context. There is hardly any mention about the role of the United States and other western powers in propping up the pan-Islamist trend to fight the former Soviet Union and its backed communist regime in Kabul in the 1980s. It also conveniently overlooks the fact that the financial, media and military might of the “free world” along with the allied Muslim states heavily invested in creating a conservative, anti-modern, intolerant and militant interpretation of Islam.
An entire social process was unleashed in most parts of the Muslim world on these lines in which Pakistan served as a frontline state. This very investment of the “free world” transformed into ghosts Al-Qaeda and its likes. Isn’t the first wave of anti-West Islamic radicals in the end-20th century comprised of veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance? Shouldn’t they be seen as the “unintended consequences” or “products” of that war, which brain-washed even children trough text-books, which promoted militancy, intolerance and extremist ideas and ideals? The Islamic State in Iraq & Syria or Daesh is the latest morphosis of this free-world-sponsored trend of arming and using non-state actors to bring down governments. And there is hardly any sustained effort to roll-back this social process.
Such efforts require investment in education, social development as well as solution to some of the old disputes on Muslims’ lands – from Kashmir to Palestine. Ironically, these issues are not even discussed or highlighted.
Similarly, the process of arming, financing and using the non-state actors continues even today by the West in the Middle East. Wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria are a testimony of this fact, underlining that no lessons have been learnt from the past.
Our friends also disregard the fact the way Washington and its allies abandoned Afghanistan all through the 1990s, it played a big role in making the situation in Afghanistan more complex. Those were the times when Afghanistan, awash with weapons and reeling with a new cycle of civil war, was left for Pakistan to deal with. A porous border and millions of refugees were seen only as Pakistan’s headache.
The rise of Afghan Taliban, the infiltration of Al-Qaeda and other pan-Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan were the realities, which Pakistan had faced with its limited resources in a hostile neighbourhood. In other words, Pakistan became the perfect victim of callous world power politics and policies. And yet, ironically, the biggest victim of the Afghan war is being painted as a villain by vested interests in our neighbouring countries and elements in the West.
While discussing post-9/11 period, detractors of Pakistan allege that Islamabad saved its so-called “assets,” including the Haqqani network. These allegations are pushed disregarding the fact that it was basically Pakistan’s cooperation and help that led to the swift collapse of the Afghan Taliban regime. Pakistan arrested and handed over hundreds of top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operators to the international coalition in line with UN resolutions. And it was Pakistan that suffered the most because of the extremists’ backlash for its support to the international war effort. Pakistani civilians and forces paid this price through their sweat, tears and blood. More than 60,000 people have been martyred since early 2002 in terrorist attacks. And this number is mounting.
Yet, Pakistan continues to face unrelenting pressure to open up new fronts and to do more, though the US-led coalition officially pulled itself out of the war effort in end-December 2014.
For a country like Pakistan, there are limits of the use of power. While Pakistan being a responsible member of the international community, must do all it can to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, it cannot, and should not, open all fronts to appease foreign powers. It must set priorities in line with its national interests. Pakistan makes all efforts to establish the state’s writ to ensure that its soil is not being used for terrorism against any other country. This is one of the cornerstones of Pakistan’s foreign policy. That’s why for the first time in history, Pakistan moved troops into the previously ungoverned and semi-autonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan managed to establish its writ slowly, but surely, in these areas and that too at a great human cost and sacrifice.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan is the continuation of this effort, which started during the period of former President Pervez Musharraf in one of the most difficult mountainous terrains of the world. Unlike the US-led coalition forces, Pakistan does not have the option of walking away from its mission. It has to prevail and win this war for its own national security and unity.
After fighting the longest 13-year overseas war in US history and spending trillions of dollars, American strategists have only to showcase a wobbly Kabul regime, a fractured state, reenergized Afghan Taliban and prospects of another round of bloody civil war.
The communist regime of Najibullah in Kabul fared better after the exit of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in February 1989 as it managed to survive another three years on its own. Can one say with surety about the present Afghan government that it would last even for few months if the international support gets fully withdrawn?
That’s the reason behind the renewed push for a negotiated-settlement with the Afghan Taliban – an idea which Pakistan proposed soon after the American adventure started in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 – barely less than a month after the 9/11 attacks.
Musharraf, the architect of Pakistan’s policy-change in Afghanistan, while extending Islamabad’s cooperation against hardened terrorists in line with the UN resolution, advocated a greater representation for Pashtuns in Kabul and reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban – an idea which did not find any takers at that time. However, today the United States and the Afghan government are trying to strike a deal with Taliban with the help of China and Pakistan.
This is a good omen for peace, but requires a lot of focus, sincerity, hard work and give-and-take from all the players involved in the quadrilateral talks. There is a need to learn from the past mistakes.
The US-led coalition in Afghanistan should realize that it lost focus in the Afghan war at a crucial stage as Washington opened a new front in Iraq in March 2003. The US-backed regime in Kabul did little to address Pakistan’s legitimate concerns about the security and sanctity of its western frontiers. The Northern Alliance, which marched into Kabul after the Taliban retreat, was given a much bigger share in power at the cost of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority.
Kabul allowed Indians to establish its forward intelligence bases in the form of consulates close to Pakistani borders to foment violence and terrorism in Pakistan. It also extended support, protection and shelter to anti-state element from Pakistan on the Afghan soil.
In recent years, most of the deadly terrorists’ strikes carried out on the Pakistani soil – from December 16, 2014 terrorist strike at the Army Public School Peshawar to the latest attack at the Bacha Khan University Charsadda – originated from Afghanistan where masterminds and operators of the extremist Pakistani Taliban, and their foreign allies enjoy safe places. Similarly, Afghanistan is also serving as a base for the insurgents who are trying to trigger trouble in Balochistan. India enjoys a free hand to use Afghan soil not just for intelligence gathering but also for violence, sabotage and terrorism in Pakistan. Kabul has to move briskly to address Pakistani concerns that have all the potential to strain relations between the two countries despite sincere efforts by Pakistani leadership to improve relations.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, it remains clear that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is vital not just for the regional peace but also Pakistan’s own fight against religiously-motivated terrorism and extremism. Pakistan in return asks nothing of a government in Kabul that does not allow use of its territory for any kind of anti-Pakistan activities. This is the minimum requirement a country can have with its neighbour after standing with it through thick and thin for more than 35 years. Is Kabul in a mood to play the ball? Is the Afghan leadership ready to work with Islamabad for greater cooperation and regional peace? Will it act against those responsible for terrorism in Pakistan? Or unrealistic expectations from Pakistan continue to plague relations between the two countries? The choices can never be simpler.
The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. [email protected] Twitter: @AmirZia1
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