A lot has been written about the strategic milestones in the history of Pakistan concerning the events of 1948, 1962, 1965, 1971, 1988, 1999 and 2019 involving the disputed status of Indian occupied Kashmir and relations with the US, China, India and Afghanistan. Some say that there were many lost opportunities in these events which could have benefited the country immensely had there been a serious and united effort to play them wisely. The other view is that Pakistan should have kept its head down and invested in the economy in order to become a strong power before playing a role above its weight in foreign and regional affairs. There can be books written on both viewpoints and indeed a majority of commentators are found strongly wedded to either the first or the second view, with few willing to hold the middle ground.
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021 is both good and bad news for those who are directly affected by Washington’s decision to no longer continue to underwrite US dollar cheques for the long Afghan war. The reason why Washington seems to have lost the will to continue to fund this war is because it reached a dead end making it necessary to turn back or else face more troop losses. The US backed the wrong horse in Afghanistan right from the start and abandoned the Taliban who may not have been the good guys in its view, but they represented the will of the Afghan people not to be brushed away as a rag tag fringe of Pashtun tribesmen reflecting a high degree of independence and perseverance. Washington’s mistake was to liken Taliban with Al-Qaeda and treat them like ISIS or Boko Haram. The Afghan Taliban did not subscribe to the ideology of those extreme terrorist groups. They wanted to be left alone in their country without any outside power imposing its non-Islamic ideology on their beliefs. They were and remain a force to reckon with. Any country ignoring or refusing to deal with them as serious interlocutors in the Afghan peace process will be repeating the same mistake the US made causing it to lose a war for the second time after Vietnam in the 1970s.
Pakistan cannot isolate itself from Afghanistan’s uncertain future. It cannot afford to let other countries or groups fill in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan and foment instability in the region. A superpower has lost Afghanistan. Period. It does not mean Pakistan should lose Afghanistan too. But Pakistan’s options in Afghanistan are limited. They are also tightly time bound. If Pakistan does not act in time it may miss the window of opportunity it now has before others get in Afghanistan first to bridge the gap. No one has greater interest than Pakistan in ensuring that precious lives are not lost in Afghanistan and lasting peace prevails in South West Asia. This is not just hope but an achievable objective, provided effort is made to take advantage of the opportunity knocking at the door. Ignore it once and the knock will be gone away to another door.
It is only possible when a government in Afghanistan, indigenously represented and popularly elected with Pashtun majority is friendly to Pakistan and does not allow any third power or proxy to threaten Pakistan from across the border. If a civil war breaks out in Afghanistan between the Taliban on one side and the Afghan government forces on the other side, Pakistan should not be a silent spectator waiting to deal with its ugly consequences in the form of refugees and other proxies pursuing their own agendas in the conflict. If such a situation evolves, Pakistani troops should cross the international border on humanitarian grounds to prevent a blood bath of brother by brother in Afghanistan in an absolutely unnecessary civil war.
People often get scared whenever the word invasion is mentioned. It is true that invasion and occupation are F words in international politics, but this is ultimately what works to fix problems. Otherwise they liger on to become protracted conflicts like Syria, South Sudan, Iraq or Somalia causing untold misery for the people of these lands. How else one should call an intervention carried out to defend your vital security and national interest. This is what India would do if there was bloody unrest and divided militias in Nepal, Sikkim or Bhutan. They already invaded East Pakistan in 1971 on the pretext of humanitarian intervention. At that time, the major powers and the UN stood silent watching India violate the international norms of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. This is what Russia would do in Ukraine. This is what was done in Bosnia and Kosovo while the UN stood helpless. This is what the US did in the Bay of Piggs under Kennedy, in Grenada under Reagan and will do again in any Latin American country which falls under its zone of influence if US interests are threatened there. This is why Iraq was invaded when the West was worried about the so called WMDs. This is what Israel would do today in Jordan or Lebanon or Egypt if things went bad there for Israel. A humanitarian military intervention is justified in international law if there are no options left to prevent bloodshed in a conflict state and establish stability and peace other than the use of force.
There are some important shot term objectives Pakistan should have on the plans before taking a timely humanitarian step, if necessary.
The first objective should be that the present government of Afghanistan must go. It has lost legitimacy after its backers have packed up and left, providing sufficient reason for fresh elections to be called in Afghanistan in the next three to six months. These elections should be conducted under a neutral caretaker government of national unity. In the new elections, all Afghans parties and groups, including the Taliban should be allowed to participate without any restrictions. Pakistan has good experience of caretaker governments. It can assist the Afghan electoral commission by providing technical assistance and security through its armed forces. Those in power in Kabul will not like such help but they know too well that they will not be able to form the next government if the next Afghan elections are free and fair and allow Taliban to participate in them. The current Afghan government may prefer instead to fight the Taliban head on. If this happens, Afghanistan could well become Libya with a weak government fighting a stronger military force for its survival at the cost of the people and the country.
A serious consequence of such development will be that this weak government could invite India to send troops to Kabul and other government-controlled cities to provide enhanced security to its buildings and security installations, thereby making it possible for India to do what it has not been able to do during the presence of US the troops, i.e. establish its military presence in Afghanistan just as it did in Kashmir 1948 and in East Pakistan in 1971. While it is true that the Taliban will not allow India to replace the US in Afghanistan, nothing could be done internationally if a government requests another country for military help to defeat what it calls internal insurgency. Turkey is providing military help to the government of Libya which is recognised internationally but it is so weak that it cannot defend its own territory against the military forces of General Haftar who has his own supporters and arms suppliers internationally. The result is a prolonged miserable period of death and uncertainty for the people of Libya and the regular influx of refugees heading to the EU from the North African region.
It has been a long drawn plan of India to squeeze Pakistan in a pincer movement from the East and West militarily in order to fast track its agenda of destabilising Pakistan by organising terrorist activities in Pakistan and actively manipulating separatist outfits in Baluchistan, including reviving the old Pashtunistan stunt on the basis that that the Durand Line Agreement signed between Sir Mortimore Durand, Foreign Secretary of British India and Amir Abdur Rehman of Afghanistan in 1893 which established the border between the two states is a colonial arrangement which does not represent the international border and should be renegotiated to take into consideration territory which included Afghanistan’s old expanded border in West Asia. If this happens, Pakistan will simply be a sitting duck in a reactive mode instead of shaping events and leading fresh initiatives. In fact, there is a real prospect of such a scenario playing out in the event of a civil war in Afghanistan breaking out, which will provide India more space in shaping events. Not doing anything about it now to prevent such a scenario will be the costliest missed opportunity so far in the political history of Pakistan.
There are rumours that the Afghan government and its supporters have approached Turkey for military help to fight the Taliban. It is a smart move. The US would be happy to see a NATO ally keep the status quo in Afghanistan without requiring US troops to be involved in peacekeeping. It would also neutralise Pakistan and prevent the Taliban achieved their aim of capturing Kabul sooner than anticipated. Pakistan has good relations with Turkey. It should advise Turkey that getting involved in Afghanistan to save the government in Kabul will not bring peace to an already volatile country. A peaceful solution lies in calling fresh elections under a neutral arrangement to allow the people of Afghanistan to choose their leaders without predetermined outcomes.
The second objective of Pakistan should be to openly back Taliban’s return to the peaceful political process and participation in the next elections in Afghanistan. They should get a fair share in the governance of the country in proportion to their representation in the population. Kabul’s current leadership does not trust Taliban. It also does not trust Pakistan. The present Administration in Kabul prefers to engage with India more closely, including in defence and economic fields. Pakistan’s natural ally in Afghanistan is Taliban. No one should be under the impression that a government in Afghanistan which does not include the Taliban will be stable or friendly to Pakistan.
The UN, NATO and US are aware that it is not easy to bring peace in Afghanistan. This is because they backed the wrong horse in Afghanistan and never admitted their mistake. This wrong horse was Taliban. Pakistan never considered Taliban as the wrong horse. They were a valuable force which could be trained and tamed. Pakistan should reap the benefit of building trust with the Taliban. It should openly support the Taliban because they don’t like India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. India will find ways to exploit the nationalistic feelings of Afghan Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras, but it cannot win over the Taliban after openly supporting the foreign backed governments of Afghanistan against the Taliban for over a decade. It is true that India too has its Taliban mercenaries to clandestinely carryout terrorist operations in Pakistan, more so on the military, police and government installations, but India’s relationship with such elements is not ideological. It is linked with the chaos that prevails in Afghanistan and the purse that pays for their mercenary services. Once the ground and the money run out, India will not be able to recruit these mercenaries. India is aware of this handicap. That’s why India is firmly backing the present Afghan government against Taliban. This month India supplied two plane loads of ammunition to the puppet Afghan government to kill more Taliban. This will undoubtedly result in more Taliban deaths and their retaliation, causing further bloodshed.
Pakistan should also brace for a fresh wave of terrorist attacks from across its Western border. The objective of such attacks, which have already started to take place lately in Baluchistan and KPK is to keep the Pakistani military preoccupied with its security issues inside Pakistan, and also divert attention away from Afghanistan’s problems. Pakistan should deepen its exchange of intelligence information with China on all security threat. China’s interest in CPEC warrants that its personnel and investments committed to the infrastructure projects in Pakistan are safe and free from interruption.
India is looking for an excuse to side-line Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and either fill the governance vacuum itself or get the UN to declare an international mandate like in Palestine in 1947, in order to deny Afghan people their right to determine their destiny freely and peacefully by the ballot box. What an irony that the so-called world’s largest democracy is active to undermine the democratic process in Afghanistan to keep its interests alive there. There is also a lesson for Pakistan to learn in this irony.
The non-Pushto speaking minority Afghan groups in Afghanistan think that Pakistan is responsible for the problems of their country. They have been fed this propaganda in Tajik, Uzbek, Persian and Hazara communities for over a decade. They have come to believe in this propaganda as a fact. By keeping the majority of Pashtun Talibans out of the political process, it is not possible to ensure lasting peace in their country. With the US troops gone, these groups will hopefully appreciate the value of democracy in which ethnic minorities have guaranteed rights under the constitution and can be part of the rich inclusive diversity of Afghanistan.
The view that after American withdrawal and end of foreign occupation in August, Afghanistan will be an independent and sovereign state and we should deal with that country as such is only as good as a pipe dream. It won’t be realised without working hard for it. If it were that easy, Afghanistan would have been a peaceful country long ago, given the engineering done by ISAF, NATO and the US in Afghanistan, reinforced by military and diplomatic activity and further talks in Doha, Tehran and other third countries. These passive and do-nothing views should be totally ignored while plans are drawn to take the required action.
The US troops withdrawal is still a month away. In this sensitive period Taliban need some good counsel at state level to start doing PR and image building in Afghanistan. They are doing the right thing filling up the military vacuum but they are not active on the political and diplomatic front to reassure public that they have changed since the days of their first controversial government in Afghanistan. They have not capitalised on their amnesty call. They have not given a roadmap of what a foreign troops free Afghanistan will be like. They have not issued a manifesto of what their government will do in the first 365 days. They should not come like a storm and upset everything like a tornado. They should learn a lesson from Muslim Brotherhood, the party of Mohammed Morsi which was big on celebrating the departure of Hosni Mubarak (who was ironically one of their own Egyptians) but it was short on confidence building with Egyptians. MB was too fast and too intimidating for its critics. The fire cracker ended soon after it was lighted. It was sound and fury signifying nothing. The Taliban should not repeat this in order to make Afghanistan a peaceful and free country after many decades.
Pakistan can also assist Afghanistan attain peace by actively assisting the new Afghan government, post-election, in disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation of ex-combatants in the Afghan society as useful citizens. Many generations of Afghans, including the Taliban have grown up under the shadow of improvised explosive devices, automatic machine guns and indiscriminately attacking drones. They need to be reintegrated back into the Afghan society and given useful skills to earn their living in dignity and peace. After peace is established thousands of ex-combatants would need psychological counselling and psychiatric treatment. Pakistan can help in this because its doctors speak Afghan languages. Pakistan can help create and train a strong Afghan defence force comprising all Afghan ethnic forces and offer them training courses in its institutions. Pakistan can also help Afghanistan in writing a new constitution for the new Islamic Republic and help with technical assistance for institution building in civil services and criminal justice system. The peace dividend will help both Afghanistan and Pakistan grow naturally without third parties eying their minerals and natural resources and finding excuses to foment trouble. Afghanistan’s future depends on the prosperity of Pakistan. An Afghanistan with expanded CPEC projects will have much more to offer to its own nationals than to the nationals of third countries. So far everyone has made quick silver in the name of Afghanistan, except the Afghans themselves. It is time for battle fatigued Afghans to write their own future in peace, with Pakistan standing by them as a friend in the same way as China stands with Pakistan in all weathers.
*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a former diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter.