Pakistan’s Afghan policy: is that depth strategic or senseless?
At a conference earlier this year, someone made an argument, convincingly I thought, against the use of the expression “the end-game in Afghanistan”. Afghanistan as a country and the people in it will not come to an end when western forces leave, and nor is their future a game. I was reminded of that comment reading a report published at the end of last month called “Pakistan, the United States , and the End Game in Afghanistan; Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite.”
The report, produced jointly by the Jinnah Institute and the United States Institute of Peace, summarises in one place what has until now been largely the subject of background briefings about what Pakistan wants in Afghanistan. The report’s authors, who have also written a shorter summary of its findings, identify three main objectives which the “elite” considered necessary in Afghanistan:
“A degree of stability in Afghanistan: Project participants felt that Pakistan’s interests are best served by a relatively stable government in Kabul that is not hostile towards Pakistan. There was across the board realization among the participants that persistent instability in Afghanistan will have numerous and predictable consequences for Pakistan that it is ill-prepared to tackle.
“An inclusive government in Kabul: Pakistan prefers a negotiated configuration with adequate Pashtun representation that is recognized by all ethnic and political stakeholders in Afghanistan. Some of the opinion makers insisted that given the current situation, a sustainable arrangement would necessarily require the main Taliban factions – particularly Mullah Omar’s “Quetta Shura” Taliban and the Haqqani network – to be part of the new political arrangement.
“Limiting Indian presence to development activities: Pakistani foreign policy elite accept that India has a role to play in Afghanistan’s economic progress and prosperity. However, many participants perceived the present Indian engagement to be going beyond strictly development. They wish to see greater transparency on Indian actions and objectives.”
None of that is particularly new — arguably it has a slightly dated quality since much of the work on the report was done before U.S. forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2, souring relations and curbing Pakistan’s ability to influence the United States on its approach to Afghanistan. But it merits reading in full for its detailed description of Pakistan’s view of what it wants in Afghanistan – a view, the report’s critics say, heavily influenced by the Pakistan army.
It has also served the unintended purpose of renewing a debate in the Pakistani media about Pakistan’s policies on Afghanistan. To what extent does Pakistan need to try (unsuccessfully so far) to impose a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul in order to secure its own interests? How far does it have the right to do so? And how far are its interests secured in any case through what some see as meddling in Afghanistan?
In Dawn newspaper, columnist Kamran Shafi condemned the report as an arrogant rehash of old policies which have led to nothing but trouble for Pakistan – it has traditionally tried to assert its influence in Afghanistan by backing Islamist groups whose militant ideology and violence have since spilled into Pakistan itself. “How pray will these opinion makers (and foreign policy elites, let us never forget) make sure that their friends will find place in the new arrangement? Will there be elections so that the Afghans will freely choose the new ‘arrangement’? If so, what if these people are not elected? What then? Will it then be ‘arranged’ to get them on to the ‘new political arrangement’ by force of arms, and further terrorism? Will we never learn our lessons?”
Blogger Ahsan Butt asked how Pakistan felt about foreign countries meddling in its own domestic policies. “Here’s what gets me: this same ‘foreign policy elite’ gets its khaki knickers in a twist if and when other countries seek to meddle in our affairs. But when we do it, it’s normal and natural. It’s as if we want to be Bismarck in a world of Kofi Annans.”
The answer is usually that Pakistan has good reason to fear instability in Afghanistan. It has played host to three million Afghan refugees since the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and without either a recognised or sealable border between the two would be the first to suffer the spillover of intensifying civil war. It also argues that its own Pashtun population has been fired up by the fighting in Afghanistan, helping to create the conditions which produced the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban. And with its worries about India on one side, the army has traditionally argued it needed a friendly Afghanistan on the other to give it what was once labelled as “strategic depth” against its much bigger neighbour.
The reports critics have responded by saying that Pakistan needs to deal with its own Pashtun population better rather than trying to impose a solution in Afghanistan that takes care of Afghan Pashtuns. Pakistan’s traditional approach in dealing with Pashtun nationalism has been to stress Islamic identity over ethnic identity (hence its backing for the Taliban when they were in power from 1996 to 2001) to prevent any breakaway movements among its own Pashtun population.
A better option, argued Shahid Ilyas in the Daily Times, would be to give the Pashtuns living in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) full political rights and incorporate the area into Pakistan-proper so that it no longer feared they might break away. “Suspicion of Pashtun intentions vis-à-vis their willingness to stay part of the Pakistani state became one of the most important elements of the policy of the security state. This suspicion necessitated the use of every means in order to keep Pashtun nationalism down. It also necessitated measures towards placing friendly governments in Afghanistan — a government that did not question the legitimacy of the Durand Line,” he wrote.
In another column in the Daily Times, Farhat Taj, who has been a trenchant critic of the Pakistan army, complained that the report made a false equivalence between the Afghan Pashtun and the Taliban. “Basically, the report is aimed at justifying the establishment’s long-standing Afghan policy, the strategic depth policy that has brought nothing but destruction to the Pakhtun and has created religious bigotry in Pakistan. The elite is using the notion of the ‘not antagonistic to Pakistan’ government in Afghanistan to camouflage the notion of strategic depth in Afghanistan. They are using the name of the Pakhtun nation to camouflage the Taliban terrorists. The report is basically a ‘liberal’ cover-up of an essentially fundamentalist policy of the Pakistani state. Since the elite do not want to repeatedly talk of empowering the Taliban — this is not correct political discourse in the post 9/11 world — so they talk of including the ‘Pakhtun’ in the Afghan power structure. It unmistakably looks as if the elite is implying that the Taliban are representative of the Pakhtun.”
And, again in the same newspaper, Mohammad Taqi echoed that theme, saying of the report that, “the imaginary Pashtun ‘resentment’ is being used as a sandbag to project what merely is Rawalpindi’s (the army’s) wish list vis-à-vis Afghanistan.”
It is unlikely those arguments will make much difference to Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan. The narrative is deeply ingrained that Pakistan’s problems began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and can only be ended with a settlement in Afghanistan that suits Pakistan’s interests. But is it correct?
An alternative narrative could be constructed by asking where Pakistan would be now had there been no Sept. 11 attacks and had the Taliban remained in power in Kabul. Would the Islamist militants who have terrorised Pakistan with suicide bombings and fedayeen attacks have remained quiescent? The Taliban themselves had little liking for their Pakistani backers, refusing to recognise the border with Pakistan when they were in power. Former Taliban ambassador to Islamabad Abdul Salam Zaeef also suggested in his memoirs that the Taliban might have tried to export their own ideology to Pakistan, noting that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar wrote to then President Pervez Musharraf at the beginning of 2001 calling on him to implement sharia law . And what of Pakistan’s own religious parties, who according to their critics, have encouraged a rise in sectarianism and intolerance? How would they have fared had there been no war in Afghanistan? Has the war in Afghanistan only exacerbated, or even coincided with, problems that would have arisen anyway, rather than caused them?
Obviously, we can’t possibly know for sure the answer to those those questions. They are rarely asked in a national narrative which has focused largely on Pakistan’s need to resist U.S. pressure to “do more” to tackle militants, rather than on what Pakistan needs for itself. But the report on Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan, and the media debate it spurred, got me asking them. Whether you agree with its findings or not, it provides a solid base for discussion.
All that said, I’d like to put in a plea to kill off the expression “The Afghanistan End Game” and bury it in the same graveyard as the hopelessly reductive label “AfPak”.