Relations with Afghanistan have mostly bordered on superficial, aspirational and delusional

Pakistan’s Afghan sore continues to bleed. As a policy, relations with Afghanistan have mostly bordered on superficial, aspirational and delusional. In search of an ideational chimera termed ‘strategic depth’ it has been a policy of unrealistic promise and zero return. The policy can essentially be divided over three phases. Till 1979 Afghanistan was a neighbour which shared ethnic and religious similarities with Pakistan but was dominatingly independent in its policy preferences. Strong nationalism reinforced by tribal and religious undertones was as much vulnerable to external influences, making it a difficult neighbour to work with. Interests inimical to the state of Pakistan have always readily found residence in Afghan midst. A hotbed of competing intelligence and security presence has meant that it has been a source of concern to all its neighbours. A loose confederation of regional coalitions — even when a political federation — led by diverse ethnic and tribal denominations, has always meant that Afghanistan has never had one voice on issues but a diverse disposition.

This then has been the source of Pakistan’s inconsistent and unpredictable state to state relations with Afghanistan. It has usually taken the shape of Afghanistan expressing itself with its own aspirations of a larger Pashtun state with historical claims over territories forming Pakistan. It has under every political order refused to accept the Durand Line as the international border. It has hosted pariah groups and terror outfits in its ungoverned spaces which have assaulted neighbours, specifically Pakistan. India has always found a disproportionate influence in Afghanistan despite being a distant neighbour enabling it to execute her malicious design against Pakistan’s stability and security interest. It has always irked Pakistan’s sensitivity, but she has generally kept a pretense of a decent symbiotic relationship with Afghanistan.

When in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and occupied it as a part of its geopolitical design the act projected an entirely new set of challenges for Pakistan needing a different response. Passive acquiescence to what was always complex yet borne out with equanimity would not do. For the first time a superpower knocked at Pakistan’s doors. The new threat needed a new response with a changed policy. A policy is a matter of choice to address an emergent situation though any option will have its own consequences. 1970s was a different era. A binary ruled geopolitical choices. And though some claimed non-alignment it existed only nominally. The world was split in two and Soviet Union led the opposing block. Also, Pakistan did not have the capacity to oppose the Soviet juggernaut — latter’s propounded dream of warm waters was of little help. So, when Saudi Arabia and its US patron decided to fight away Soviets’ expansionist design Pakistan became a willing conduit. It would help ward off the Soviet threat primarily and as always hoped for a better hearing ear from the US on Kashmir. That the policy left in its wake a burden of over three million refugees, a distorted social construct and the influx of crime related to arms and drugs was the flip side of the choice we made.

Come 2001 and a separate geopolitical dynamic imposed its own effect. The US this time made an entry into Afghanistan and occupied it. The aftermath of its effort against the Soviet Union in 1979 and a decade after meant that what was used as a weapon then — the Mujahideen, in an irregular war — found a life of their own when left unattended. Global forces against the US coalesced to trigger an inter-civilisational conflict leading to what is popularly called 9/11. The monster turned against its master. In many ways we are still grappling with those after-effects long after USA’s departure from the region. But a twenty-year presence of the only superpower of its time as a neighbour meant far greater difficulty even if both proclaimed partnership in this global war against terror. In truth, it was difficult enough to save one’s skin in an engorging inferno.

We had to tread carefully through the minefield, always with an eye over the shoulder, never certain if the superpower had additional designs. In a twenty-year test, we managed to keep whole but were badly scathed. We continue to contend with the consequences. That’s the rub. The decision could be faulted for not taking the long view especially when 1979 should have informed better but with a gun held to the head, literally, the option to opt out was minimal. The price this time around was far heavier than the nation could afford. That it came through may prove its mettle, but the test has been arduous and the price heavy.

A consequence of this war of multi-dimensional effects was the growing abhorrence of US’ prosecution of the war among Pashtuns, especially those who became collateral damage in devastating Drone attacks that went awry. This gave birth to armed groups in support of their cousins, the Afghan Taliban who were fighting off this occupation. TTP was one such group which coalesced all such armed groups under one banner with an aim to fight in Afghanistan and later to create its own precinct on Pakistani territory with its own ideological definition. When the US finally exited Afghanistan and the Taliban announced victory the TTP too began having delusional thoughts of its own possible goals in Pakistan. The competitive presence of Daesh in the same geographical space as the TTP and a much weaker writ of a fragmented and incoherent Taliban meant that the TTP could be gobbled by the competing forces unless it found safer remit. It ideationally wanted FATA re-termed and returned to its erstwhile status against what was prescribed in the Constitution. That explains their forays against the state reinstituting strife and instability and igniting yet another internal war necessitating a renewed look at policy.

Any policy on Afghanistan must first and foremost ensure the safety and security of the Pakistani people. Those who attack the territories and the people of Pakistan are enemies of the state. They need to be neutralised. Since they reside in Afghanistan it is the foremost responsibility of that country to control the groups that use its soil for insidious purpose. Minimal control over its territories and a fractured structure to exercise Afghan writ renders numerous spaces ungoverned. These turn into safe havens for hostile militant groups including the TTP. Pakistan has held back to purely defensive measures to appease Afghan state’s sensitivity to any offensive action, but it hasn’t helped. In the absence of Afghan capacity to halt such malfeasance from its soil Pakistan shall have to take measures to eliminate it at its source. International convention and precedence in various UNSC resolutions permit affected states to go after terror outfits across borders especially those in ungoverned spaces.

The need for a revised policy on Afghanistan is obvious. The environment dictates such a changed response. Our senior most diplomats need to spell it out in clear terms to the Afghan Taliban on their next visit to Kabul and then follow up with a coherent and coordinated joint action of all requisite forces to eliminate the menace.

December 16, 2022.

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