What does Pakistan want?
ACCORDING to the latest statements from official spokespersons Pakistan wants a peaceful, stable Afghanistan. It no longer maintains that it wants a ‘friendly’ government nor does it make any reference to its reservations about the role India is trying to play in Afghanistan.
The commander of the 11th Corps based in Peshawar has said that Pakistan would oppose a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan because this would make more difficult the task of eliminating the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Pakistan.
Previously, the statement of a division commander from the same corps that drone attacks did more good than harm was termed as a personal assessment by the ISPR and not representative of official thinking. This time no such distinction has been drawn and one can therefore assume that this represents the official assessment.
It seems to me that even while Pakistan does not want Taliban domination of a post-withdrawal Afghanistan it would like the Pakhtuns to be adequately represented in any political arrangement that the Afghans can work out among themselves.
This is not necessarily sinister but only a recognition that, absent such representation, there will be unrest among Pakistan’s own Pakhtun population and this would be detrimental for both countries. There are, however, question marks against statements from Pakistan suggesting that Pakistan must have a seat at the table when reconciliation is pursued by the Afghans. This creates doubts about Pakistan’s intentions.
We should recall, in this context, our sorry experience in the past at trying to work out with the Afghan parties an acceptable power-sharing arrangement following the Soviet withdrawal. All Mujahideen pledges were broken and differences were exacerbated to the point where a civil war broke out that did more damage in two years than did the decade-long Soviet occupation.
There is no doubt that this came about because other regional players with their own axes to grind interfered but that was to be expected. Let us bear this in mind and also recall our sorry experience with trying to influence the Taliban, then perceived as our protégés, to address our security issues.
Our role now should be to stay away from seeking to influence the reconciliation talks and to put in every effort to persuade other regional players to do likewise. In other words, we must respect the statement on good neighbourliness that all Afghanistan’s neighbours signed on to in 2002 and ask all others to do likewise.
President Zardari recalled in his speech at the Chicago summit that parliament had recommended that “foreign fighters and non-state actors seeking to destabilise Afghanistan and the region, if found on our soil, must be expelled”, and added “we are devising a comprehensive plan for this purpose. This would require the support of the international community both in terms of resources and capacity-building”.
More recently, the Foreign Office spokesman said that Pakistan was following a well-thought-out strategy to eradicate the menace of extremism and terrorism and would follow its own timeline. Perhaps it is time now to indicate publicly what this plan is, what support is needed and what the timeline for the execution of the comprehensive plan will be.
It is time to acknowledge that Afghanistan has been an albatross around our neck for the last 34 years. Our intervention in 1978/1979 was justified. We did fear that that Soviet control over Afghanistan would inevitably lead to ambitions about controlling Pakistani Balochistan and securing for the Soviet Union access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Admittedly, now available politburo papers suggest that this was not the driving force behind the Soviet intervention but this was a real fear in Pakistan.
What was not necessary to secure Soviet withdrawal was the use of this intervention to promote Zia’s own brand of Islamisation, inviting fanatic Islamic Mujahideen from all over the world to Pakistan and then allowing them to stay in Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Or to set up madressahs training not only Afghans but also Pakistanis for ‘jihad’. Or to allow Afghan refugees to go wherever they wished in Pakistan, granting many of them Pakistani documentation. And, importantly, to turn a blind eye towards such Mujahedeen activities as the selling of arms in the Pakistan market and drug trafficking to finance the ‘jihad’ or to line their own pockets.
What was not necessary was the continued involvement in Afghanistan after the completion of the Soviet withdrawal and then the jumping onto the Taliban bandwagon when they emerged as a reforming force. Our embassy in Kabul was burnt down because Ahmed Shah Massoud was certain that we had masterminded in terms of planning and execution the Taliban conquest of Herat.
What we lost, as a result, was the opportunity to be the alternate route for Central Asia’s trade with the rest of the world and for its supply of fossil fuel to South Asia and the rest of the world reducing their overwhelming dependence on the Russian route. What we should recall is that in 1991 there was not a room to be had in the Islamabad Marriot Hotel because executives of oil and gas companies were present in full force hoping to get a piece of the action as Turkmen gas and Uzbek oil and even Kazakh oil began to flow to Pakistani ports and to the vast South Asian market.
When we contemplate what we want in Afghanistan we should be focused on ‘comprehensive security’. This would mean forcing to the extent possible the pace of reconciliation, accepting whatever government emerges, expediting the return of the Afghan refugees and calling a halt to the smuggling of goods and drugs. Moreover, it would mean opening the path to creating the economic interdependence which more than anything else can mitigate the real or illusory military or other threats that we perceive as possibly emanating from Afghanistan or from relations that it develops with other powers within and outside the region.
Pakistan, by virtue of geography, is Afghanistan’s window on the outside world just as Afghanistan is the key to Pakistan’s and South Asia’s access to Central Asia and to the wider regional economic network that we dreamt of when we spearheaded the expansion of the Economic Cooperation Organisation in 1991 to include Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics. Afghanistan should be not the albatross around our neck but a valued partner in bringing economic benefits to the region and to us.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.