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Friday, May 17, 2024

Graveyard of Wishful Desires

The article explores Afghanistan's historical role, Pakistan's motivations, India's strategic interests, and the challenges in the evolving Afghan landscape.

یوں نہ تھا، میں نے فقط چاہا تھا یوں ہو جائ

“It wasn’t so; but I wished it could be”

-Faiz

Indeed, that’s what Afghanistan is – even the empires that got buried there essentially fell victim to their wishfulness. Mercifully, Pakistan couldn’t afford to ride wishes and therefore had to learn how to ride two horses.

Empires’ Lessons Unheeded

Lord Robertson, a former Secretary General of NATO did warn the US Defence Secretary Cohen that the rodeo riders were eventually dumped by their mounts. But the empires neither learn nor listen – and therefore simply fade away.

Some of our people did believe that if Afghanistan was invaded, even by a superpower, it’s our good neighbourly duty to help the country regain its freedom. Many others considered it a religious obligation to respond to the calls of fellow Muslims under siege. The State of Pakistan however had less altruistic reasons to support the Afghan Resistance: preventing the debris of war spilling over the frontiers. Yes, the same frontlines that were taken care by the Afghans whenever we played wargames with the big bad brother in the East. Afghans too didn’t do it out of any goodness of heart – but because the Land of Indus provided them with quintessential strategic depth. Ours is a country where millions of them when invaded by the mightiest of powers found refuge; was once their sole window to the world; and continues to be a conduit of a bit of duty-free trade – popularly called smuggling.

Cooperative Model and Afghan Credit

During the last four decades this cooperative model rescued two superpowers who had drifted into the Afghan quagmire. The problem is that some of our own people feel pretty jealous that the barbaric tribesmen got all the credit. Of course, the Mujahidin and the Taliban belong to primordial societies – but then they were the only ones willing to stand up and fight. Their enlightened compatriots, like elsewhere, abhor violence and hence always submitted to the peace-loving invaders. However, whereas the Afghan collaborators turned out to be pretty pragmatic and grew beards when the intruders left, their Pakistani counterparts stuck to their guns. The found any reason, or unreason, to run down the success of these fanatic freedom fighters.

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During the Soviet occupation, the Jihad was blamed to have created a narcotics and Kalashnikov culture in Pakistan. Never mind that all the drug factories were run by us and our weapon manufacturers in the tribal areas had over the centuries perfected the art of reverse engineering. Reversing the tide of the post 9/11 invasion took more than twenty years. In that period the Afghan-Pak borders were routinely trespassed by the lightly armed militias and the heavily armed drones. All the same, when this time around the aggressors were sent packing, we had to do some ingenious thinking to deny the winners their due laurels.

There were times when the Afghan refugees were welcomed with open arms. Some may have done it to thank Allah for granting them the opportunity to fulfil a religious obligation. A few others exploited the opening to make some extra buck. In the erstwhile FATA many barren hills grew orchards and some Baloach landowners disregarded the emerging ethnic imbalance and made good use of the Afghan expertise in arid area agriculture. I remember that in the 1980s, the preferred option to move cargo were the Afghan trucks.

Understandably, it caused heartburns amongst factions of our society. The official Pakistan was still happy because there was enough to skim off the aid, we received for hosting a mass of humanity that had escaped the war zone. One day this bonanza had to end and thereafter both the state and our verbal warriors joined hands to pillory the Afghans and our Policy.

In contravention of official decree, we used to hire Afghan labourers because they did a better job and charged us less. On such minor matters the state usually looks the other way lest it had to take action – not a very pleasant distraction away from their zones of comfort; except when a police constable could blackmail a hapless and a stateless person. Some observers noted with astonishment that how come the Afghan refugee camps, like similar ones elsewhere, did not become crime and prostitution dens. That bonhomie is now well behind us.

Only the other day, an anonymous piece (once it would have been trashed as per the wise old practice) was made viral on the social media. It posited that most of the malaise in Pakistan was rooted in the unbearably large number of Afghans who’re on rampage in our sacred land. Their count may only be half of what we add to our population every year but then that’s what our holy fathers have prescribed to one day drown the infidels under our weight. That the Taliban could do it with a much smaller number would amount to conceding that the irregular warfare was a superior concept – and may tempt our conventional forces to change tactics and run the armament industries out of business.

The Taliban’s Role and Future

We now wish that the Taliban whom we supported at great risk and earned the dubious honour of playing double and triple games would crackdown on the TTP. If I recall correctly our best argument when the US asked us to do the same was that the militants were not like a herd of cattle that could be rounded up and handed-over for onward despatch to Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, we already had plenty on our plate and would not open more fronts on behalf of a distant power to hunt down people who would be here forever. And if the mightiest alliance the world had ever known could not take care of a ragtag militia, it better pack up and go get lost. The Taliban have a better case not to go on a wild goose chase to net some mad caps who stood with them in their hour of need.

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Message from Kabul is thus cut and dried. They fought their war against great odds, and now it’s up to us to deal with a few thousand of our citizens who have gone astray. All that we have to do is learn the art of COIN – which is only twenty percent kinetic.

Every one of us still has the right to like or dislike the Afghans and the way Pakistan deals with them, but for heaven’s sake do look at how our bête noire, the two bad biggies—the Big Boss and the Big Brother – are playing the Afghan game.

Amis are indeed back, but not to – as wilfully suggested by some Taliban haters – rearm the Afghans and settle some old scores with us. To do that they have better means —tried and tested and do not involve the maverick Afghans. They’re back to deny the Chinese, their New Great Game rivals, an uncontested sway over Toynbee’s Eastern Crossroads of History.

India’s Dual Advantage in Afghanistan

Presently, India is indeed having the best of both the worlds in Afghanistan. They’ve always had the advantage of “no common borders” with this troubled and troublesome land; and regardless of where any Afghan came from, the thumka of Bollywood would floor even the most pious amongst them. But it’s in fact the South Block’s faith in Chanakya, whose teachings inspired even the Great Machiavelli, that has guided Delhi to position itself in our backyard. Having supported Moscow during its decade long war in Afghanistan, after the Soviet withdrawal India ganged up with the anti-Mujahideen Northern Alliance. Post 9/11, it rode on the coattails of the US to cause us many an anxious moment. With NATO beating a hasty retreat, Delhi gave a decent pause before Gaurav who under a diplomatic cover in Islamabad had been following the Taliban, went over to re-establish Indian bridgehead.

These are all legitimate moves on Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard and the fifty billion tons of wheat that reached Afghanistan through our territory should encourage India come on board with other regional countries. In any case we can count on the wily Afghans that they would deal with all countries on the basis of what the latter could do for them. In many respects Pakistan would remain at the top of this list.

The Future

After seeing off the foreign military power, the next big challenge for the Afghans is to recreate the grand bargain that helped Ahmad Shah Baba found a country of disparate tribes and factions. Next to assisting the Afghans get rid of foreign military presence, this also happened to be an important pillar of our policy. Once upon a time, it was more complex than waging a war of resistance by a people who had mastered the art of fighting from behind a rock. It should now be more doable since all the anti-Taliban factions have been abandoned by their erstwhile patrons. The message that came out loud and clear in a large gathering of some well-known Afghan hands was that Pakistan held the best cards to bring about this grand reunion.

Lt Gen. (r) Asad Durrani is a retired 3-star rank general in the Pakistan Army and presently a commentator and speaker. He is the author of “Pakistan Adrift (2018)” and “Honour Among Spies (2020)” and a prominent defence columnist. He served as Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), DG Military Intelligence, and as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Germany. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space (GVS News).