Dealing with Afghanistan.

Afghan Taliban Movement contains various strands that morphed into the singularity of purpose during fighting

Today TTP remains the biggest ‘variable’ that has the potential to degrade the ‘constants’ of Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, outlined last week. However, the other emerging variable is the state of flux that afflicts state and society in Afghanistan. These ‘variables’ interface in a complex manner with the ‘constants’ making way forward challenging, and in need of constant evaluation.

Over two decades of conflict has affected the core of Afghanistan. In conceptual domain, the social structure, despite the very strong moorings of Pashtunwali – the majority Afghans’/Pashtuns’ code – has fractured. Emigration and migration have disturbed the village, the basic and nucleus unit of social cohesion. The traditional power elite have been replaced. Afghans have been exposed to modernity, education and other influences.

The religious elite, who remained at the forefront of conflict, as Afghans voluntarily ceded authority and leadership to them since the days of Jihad against the Soviet Union, is deeply entrenched…socially, economically, politically and militarily. And honestly, without clergy in the lead, the Afghan state would have been a Soviet satellite or a NATO member.

The religious elite ‘rightly’ feels that the sweat, blood and treasure they invested in Afghanistan’s independent future has to be respected. The religious right, aka IEA, also feels that having successfully fought the two superpowers of contemporary times, their ideology is ascendant, their model emulate-able, and their governance a reflection of the early days of Islam. They see the world through their prism, and their worldview mirrors the common Pashtun worldview in the rural heartland of Afghanistan, KP and Balochistan.

However, just like the religious tradition in the Subcontinent, the Afghan Taliban Movement also contains various strands, that morphed into the singularity of purpose during fighting. Now that there is a state capture, these rainbow colours are more visible. Ethnicity trumps all other divisions, followed by sect (as Afghan is religiously homogenous), followed by different shades of Islamic theology. The urgency of domestic policy, economy and trade, and view of history further complicate the scene. All these influences, however, are inter-woven by a pervasive sense of Afghan nationalisms.

For policymakers in Pakistan, it is important to understand that all of the outlined influences may act individually or in unison, during IEA’s interaction with the world and the region, especially the neighborhood.

The IEA today faces challenges like inclusivity of mainly Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara minorities, womenfolk and other classes of Afghan society. There is a chasm between the Qandahari ideologues and the pragmatist Khostwal Haqqanis, and between the different religious schools of thought, represented by respective alma maters.

Economic woes, and the de facto non-recognition even by the Islamic bloc, enhances IEA’s sense of isolation; fosters their angst; reinforces their less-Islamist impression of other Muslim countries; and further entrenches them in the rigidity of their beliefs and sense of self-righteousness.

The overall perception of ‘IEA core’ regarding Pakistan revolves around Pakistan’s pro-US/Western policy leanings; its single-ethnicity dominated Military’s and its manipulative policy implementation; and the Pakistani state capture by elite, more amenable to external pressures due to their lesser religious credentials.

This combined with the traditional Afghan grievances against British India (and the successor state of Pakistan) makes IEA factions indirectly anti-Pakistan, given their incorrect and incomplete comprehension of Pakistan’s imperatives. The majority IEA ranks and file, not very well versed with modern implements of geo-strategy take legacy view of a subservient Subcontinent/Pakistan that is open to slight. That Pakistan’s help in the endemic Jihad was, first an Islamic obligation and secondly, for Pakistan’s own survival, hence no thanks are due. Perpetual indebtedness and gratitude, in any case, go against Afghan sociology.

So, Pakistan’s policy formulation vis-à-vis Afghanistan should be cognizant of the imperatives (constants and variables), latent (an exploitable) hostility and state interest on either side. The emergent policy and it re-evaluation should be wise, flexible, forceful and deliberate. Last week we deliberated that hostility towards Afghanistan and Afghans is never a smart policy; this should be the bedrock of our policy. However, it should not be restrictive of Pakistan acting forcefully to address any situation politically, economically and militarily to protect its national interest.

That brings us to specific issues. First, the demarcation of Durand Line. The Afghan grievance about the imposed demarcation of Durand Line is at best historic fiction. The Durand Line was drawn on the insistence of Afghanistan, wanting to secure its borders.

The consequent Agreement was very much accepted by Amir Abdurrahman (ruled 1880-1901), who signed it on 12 November 1893. It was ratified the following day in a public Durbar of some 400 Afghan nobles and notables. Recently, Durand Line was respected by some 50 nations for 20 years, when on Afghan soil. So, Pakistan and Afghanistan both need to be educated about this done deal.

Second, yes, the ‘Fence’ erection along Durand Line dividing some 17 tribes is to the dislike of Afghans, due to Durand Line fiction; border tribes, for curtailment of traditional ‘easement rights’; and most of all smugglers, for obvious reasons.

A suggested joint Pak-IEA Commission, correcting any anomalies through local adjustments, would help defuse friction. Pakistan would gain from such exercise, being reflective of Afghan popular will in contested areas. Although both sides consider transgressions on International Border localised affairs unworthy of undue attention, recurrence may mar relations and distract bilateral focus. Therefore, redressal is important.

Third, Afghan trade should be regulated but facilitated, being paradoxically mindful that Afghan economy would be Pakistan-dependent through trade and smuggling in the foreseeable future.

Fourth, Pakistan should deal with Afghanistan as a sovereign state. Our approach to Afghanistan should be over-arching including politicians, Miltablishment and Ulema, all on one page with robust support from the civil society and media. The broader strategic dividend should not be sacrificed on minor irritants. However, Afghanistan should be helped and handled firmly, decisively, with cohesion and without confusion.

And as mentioned earlier, even if TTA (IEA) and TTP are two sides of the same coin, as propagated by detractors of Afghanistan, it is in Pakistan’s interest to deal with them as ‘different sides of different coins’.

December 29 , 2022

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