Meddling neighbors in a war of words

Gulf News, December 21, 2006

Amidst spiralling violence in Kabul and the Afghan countryside, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has stepped up his criticism of Pakistan’s role in supporting the resurgent Taliban.

“Pakistan hopes to make slaves out of us, but we will not surrender,” Karzai told schoolboys last week. Three days earlier, a tearful Karzai had grieved over Afghan children being killed by Nato and US bombs and by “terrorists” from Pakistan.

In frequent media interviews, General Pervez Musharraf recounts the ways he has assisted the United States in the war against terrorism and insists that the Afghans should “avoid the blame game” and work with Pakistan in dealing with a shared problem.

Pakistani officials list Karzai’s weaknesses, which they say are the real cause of Afghanistan’s current security problems.

It is true that Pakistan cannot fully control its complex 1,125 mile (1,810 kilometres) border with Afghanistan, where the international community and the national government have both made a series of mistakes.

Karzai’s patronage politics has kept Afghan warlords in business and his reliance on secular westernised Pashtuns has antagonised the more religiously oriented Afghans.

Afghanistan’s current political structure is far from fully inclusive and the country is plagued with corruption and governance problems. But it is also a fact that there is no insurgency in Afghanistan’s Northern provinces, which face the same problems of governance that affect the eastern and southern provinces adjoining Pakistan.

Despite the weakness of their state, the Afghans have a strong sense of nationalism and under normal circumstances they would have resolved their grievances against Kabul without suicide bombings and terrorist attacks.

The international and Pakistani media has run credible reports of Pakistani authorities’ tolerance and in some cases active support for its former Taliban protégés.

Pakistan’s powerful security services, notably the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), never liked the idea of removing the Taliban from power in the first place. Instead of ensuring a friendly government in Kabul by working with whoever is in power there, the ISI has long been wedded to the idea of installing its clients and allies as Afghanistan’s rulers.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani security establishment has repeatedly chosen extremists unacceptable to the international community for that role, including Gulbeddin Hekmatyar and the Taliban.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan became a reluctant US ally and the ISI has taken some action against Al Qaida. But notwithstanding recent official protestations to the contrary, Pakistan has done little to fight the Afghan Taliban.

Rooted in history

Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan is rooted in history. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border was demarcated in 1893 as the frontier of the British Raj in India. After independence in 1947, Pakistani leaders had assumed that Pakistan would inherit the functions of India’s British government in guiding Afghanistan’s foreign policy.

But Afghanistan responded to the emergence of Pakistan by voting against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations. It argued that the treaty that demarcated Afghanistan’s current border with Pakistan was no longer valid because a new country had been created where none existed at the time the treaty was signed under British coercion.

Since then, Pakistan’s establishment says it is fearful of Afghan officials collaborating with India in squeezing Pakistan through a pincer movement.

A lot has changed in Afghanistan’s attitude towards Pakistan and none of Afghanistan’s current leaders espouse anti-Pakistan views of the Kabul regimes of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It is now Pakistan’s turn to review its security concerns and change the prism through which it views Afghanistan.

The establishment’s near obsession with extending Pakistan’s influence into Afghanistan has already lost Pakistan the good will generated by support of Afghan refugees and Mujahideen during their anti-Soviet struggle.

Since the fall of the pro-communist Kabul regime in 1992, Pakistan’s intelligence community has adopted the attitude of British officers of the 19th century when Britain and Russia competed for influence in Central Asia in the “Great Game” of espionage and proxy wars.
Karzai was obviously referring to this attitude in his remarks about Pakistan’s desire to enslave Afghanistan though he could have used more temperate language.

Many in Pakistan’s security establishment do not consider the Taliban as enemies and US officials are simply bluffing themselves by failing to see that reality.

The result is the creeping Talibanisation in NWFP and the tribal areas, which does not augur well for Pakistan. It is further evidence that intervention in Afghanistan is more likely to weaken Pakistan instead of strengthening its security.

It is time for the Pakistani establishment to give up ideas evolved during the British Raj and the Cold War. Pakistan should befriend Karzai to secure its northwest flank instead of yet another risky adventure involving militancy and terrorism.

The international community, too, must persuade Musharraf ensure the stability of both Pakistan and Afghanistan by disengaging from the folly of seeking “strategic depth” through dangerous proxies such as the Taliban.