5 reasons Pakistan won’t change its Afghan policy

By Suhrob Ahmad On Sep 01, 2015

When it comes to Pakistan, Afghanistan has got it wrong from the very beginning. In 1947 when India finally won independence, it came at a price of creation and recognition of state of Pakistan. The Afghan government by then a  mature state with almost three decades of sovereign rule made an error that haunts it to this day. While the walls of United Nations were still being built, the Afghan ambassador stood firm inside this nascent liberal institution and vehemently dissented the recognition of state of Pakistan. Certainly, the Afghan government had legitimate reasons to not accept the absurdity of the Durand line, a very much a hallmark of the British Empire’s heinous footprint. But to choose an undemocratic institution to appeal to the goodwill of the so called “international community” was a misjudgement of liberals on the pedestal of United Nations and more significantly the importance of Pakistan to them.

What other options was available to Afghanistan in those days to exercise its rights against Pakistan? A Punjabi dominated state with a significant diverse ethnic majority was prone to internal vulnerability. Surely, Afghanistan could use its internal unity, relatively strong state apparatus to destabilize Pakistan. With a hostile India in the South, disenchanted Bengal in the east, and Pathan, Baloch minorities eager to secede, it would have been difficult for Pakistan to survive as a state if Afghanistan pursued a destructive policy.

Of course, Afghanistan chose not to do so. Even in the first three wars that Pakistan fought with India, Afghanistan chose to not take advantage of Pakistan’s vulnerability. A fact that seems to be unappreciated by the Punjabi Establishment these days as they pull strings in Afghanistan. But power is not derived from the memory lane or based on principles of good faith. Pakistan was born to struggle to survive and this constant struggle has transformed it to not only overcome existential threats but to become a poignant regional player.

There was also a more pragmatic option with long term goal for Afghanistan in those early days of 1947. The idea of embracing Pakistan at the very outset as a newly formed brotherly nation. To build a relationship of commonality to deter the soviet ambitions from the north with closer ties to the so called “free world” that had become a close ally to Pakistan. In other words, Afghanistan should have had its own ‘strategic depth’ policy as the British Viceroy, the Indian Congress and the Muslim League were discussing the formation of Pakistan. Subsequently, as the relationship between the two Muslim nations became more entrenched, Afghanistan could have used its more politically mature system to influence the Punjabi Establishment. To serve as a mediator and arbitrator that minority in Pakistan could turn to have their voices heard in the Punjabi Establishment.

An active policy of soft power exercise would have been the more politically viable option for the Afghan government to take in the days and months of 1947. Instead Afghanistan chose the option of empty protest and passive politics. In hindsight, perhaps it is easy to point to the chronic policy failure in approaching Pakistan. But has Afghanistan learned from its history?

It is now almost 70 years later and Afghanistan is still perennially incapable to deal with Pakistan. From government officials, political pundits, military analysts and pseudo-intellectual sensationalists, all cry wolf to Pakistan for misery at home. Yes, there is no question that Islamabad has influenced Afghanistan to detrimental effects. But two fundamental points are important to remember. First, let’s not kid ourselves. The wrath of Pakistani terror did not begin with Taliban in 1994. It started as early as 1980 with the first batch of insurgents working towards the Punjabi slogan that ‘Kabul must burn’.

Secondly, Islamabad is not exclusively responsible for the current situation of Afghanistan. Moscow, Washington, Tehran, New Delhi and the rest of the “coalition of the willing” have all to the best of their capacity contributed to the destruction of Afghanistan in the last three decades. Most saliently in the last 13 years, Afghanistan became home to international military exercise and intelligence war coated under the facade of War on Terror, Democracy and Development. It is Islamabad however that has been the most successful in Afghan politics and as much as we might detest, it is Pakistan that holds the key to peaceful future to Afghanistan.

So is the ‘naming and shaming’ approach that continues to persist to this day by anyone with a platform to speak on Afghan affairs the right front to Islamabad? How is the current approach different from the days of 1947? Amidst the treachery and terror that is escalating, it is necessary to dissect the futile current trend of pointing finger at Pakistan so that we develop a right strategy to obtain peace. The first step is to acknowledge that Pakistan will not change its Afghan policy anytime soon. Islamabad is adamant to see its Afghan policy to its end and below five reasons will manifest its enduring success. 

Alas We Are Weak:

Historians have bestowed upon Afghanistan the label “thegraveyard of empires”. A colonial imagery that we nonetheless have proudly embraced as a signifying identity. After all, the last three global empires, British, Soviet and US have all tasted defeat on this land. But at what cost? Today, Afghanistan has literally become a graveyard. In the last three and half decades, over two million Afghans have been martyred. The rest of the nation not so lucky have either been maimed, widowed, orphaned displaced or all of the above and left with the agony to endure this protracted war.

So how can we in such a feeble condition stand up to the atrocities of Islamabad? We must first question how we came to such a critical condition and who is responsible for our current state? We should not blame Pakistan, because the Punjabi Establishment never claimed to be friends of Afghanistan. Islamabad considers Afghanistan as a neighbour state in the most realist sense of the term. It is the supposed friends of Afghanistan in the last four decades that have brought up this condition. First the Soviet Union and then the United States.

More significantly, it has been the United States and its allies that are the main culprit of our current condition. It is high time we acknowledge that with friends like the United States, we have no need for an enemy like Pakistan. The fact that we are so vulnerable to Pakistan today is the only tangible result of the last 14 years of US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan. The fact that we cannot today even define our national interest is thanks to the hundreds of foreign expats roaming around in advisory role as “experts” at high ministries in Kabul and living up the ‘American dream’ at our expense.

This is 2015 Afghanistan. An insurgency terrorizing at unprecedented level with the highest civilian casualties on record. A shambolic political unity that seems to only add salt to the nations wound. A deflated economy as a consequence of withdrawal of the Western presence. A good riddance must say, from its military-industrial-complex to its accompanying ‘parachuted circus’ known as the humanitarian sector. A society that is plagued with utter hopelessness, from its fragile elderly to its destitute youth.

Pakistan is a regional power:

While stark economic distress, social upheaval and political incompetence epitomizes the current Afghanistan, in contrast, relative economic growth, social cohesion and a compelling political system defines Pakistan. The strength of Islamabad was apparent from the very beginning. The power lies in Pakistan’s military which has been the cornerstone of Punjabi Establishment, an inheritance of the British Empire. While Pakistan’s political history has been turbulent since its inception, the highly sophisticated military apparatus has managed to keep Pakistan’s state from collapsing on numerous occasions.

Pakistan’s military being a Punjabi dominated elitist institution has always placed the national interest of Pakistan above pity politics. Today, Pakistan’s secular and Islamic parties, its bureaucracy, justice system, intelligence and civilian government are all in tandem when it comes to Pakistan’s national interest. This is no easy achievement and the credit is due to the Pakistan’s military. Today Pakistan is on track to become the third biggest nuclear power state with one of the strongest militaries in Asia and identified as a member of the next eleven (N-11) largest economies of this century. Therefore, Afghanistan is facing a strong united political system in Pakistan that will not sway from its withering ambitions. It is not enough to point to Pakistani agendas in Afghanistan. We must first acknowledge the strength behind it.

Afghanistan will always be secondary to Pakistan:

The very few instances when Afghanistan sets its grievance with Pakistan internationally, it is framed in a rather self-centric approach. The demand is for the “international community” to support us and punish them. There is a general misconception to vilify Pakistan to appeal to the better judgement of the world. If only the “international community” knew the true nature of Pakistan, so goes the argument.

Such thinking places the so called “international community” in a benign moral pedestal that must save us from the atrocities of Pakistan. Such rational indeed suffers from Western-Saviourcomplex. The reality is that the world knows Pakistan very well. Nonetheless, it would take Pakistan side over us without a second of hesitation. More pertinently to the dismay of the many Afghan liberals, the so called “international community” has been intricately linked to what Pakistan has done to Afghanistan. It is high time we acknowledge that Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan to the region and the world.

While Afghanistan exercised quiet diplomacy and neutrality as a non-aligned member in the crucial era of 1950s-60s-70s, Pakistan was becoming an ever closer partner to the United States as

USSR rebuffed the capitalist Muslim League dominating West-Pakistan. In this crucial period, the Pakistan’s military was actively involved in suppressing democracy internally and engaging India in three bloody wars. In other words, the Punjabi Establishment was making a statement as a regional power and Uncle Sam was intrigued.

United States extended invitation to Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan in as early as 1950 and immediately after the visit of the PM defense ties between the two countries were rapidly strengthened. The defense treaty signed in 1954 allowed hundreds of Pakistani military personnel to train in the United States. In Rawalpindi, a military assistance advisory group (MAAG) was established by U.S and in 1956 Pakistan granted the United States to lease the Peshawar air station to be used in intelligence gathering against the Soviet Union.

To appreciate the magnitude of Pakistan’s close relationship to the United States, Kissinger used Pakistan’s good relation with the People’s Republic of China to initiate secret contact and normalize relation with China which resulted in the 1972 Nixon visit. Such was the trust placed in Pakistan, equivalent to the role last year Canada played in normalizing relation between the United States and Cuba.

Even in Pakistan’s 1971 war with India, which the United States officially condemned, Iran, Turkey and Jordan were sending military supplies to Pakistan at the behest of the United States. When by the end of the war, Pakistan’s defeat was becoming imminent, the United States sent USS enterprise and taskforce-74 into the Indian Ocean to warn India and Soviet Union against escalating attacks inside Pakistan. A dismemberment of East Pakistan and creation of state of Bangladesh resulting in loss of half of Pakistan’s navy, and a quarter of its army which could have been much worse if not for the United States steadfast warning to India-Soviet Union to retreat.  

It was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 24 1979 that truly solidified the United States relation with Pakistan. As soon as the Soviets 40th army crossed into Afghanistan, the United States created the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF); a collective security framework in the region and full commitment to the defense of Pakistan with military and economic aid. Assistance to Pakistan in support of the war against the soviets in Afghanistan became the largest covert operation in the history of the United States. In the next decade, Pakistan and the United States relation were promoted to the highest level. Operation Cyclone was a huge success and by mid 1980s, Soviet Union began negotiating withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

As the Soviet Union began to fall apart, so came the realization in the United States for a new ally in Asia. China was the next emerging power and only with an Indian alliance, could the United States halt China’s economic growth. Hence, relations with India were strengthened while Pakistan was slapped with sanctions for its nuclear power developments. Despite Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sheriff numerous attempts to lift the military and economic embargos set under the Pressler Amendment, the United States would not budge. Pakistan perceived India as a nuclear state to be an existential threat. It had to pursue the development of nuclear bomb. In 1998, Pakistan successfully conducted nuclear test in response to Indian nuclear test and became the first Muslim country with nuclear bomb. In light of Western embargo and severe economic distress, this achievement was by no means an easy feat. The credit is due to the Pakistani perseverance and its military establishment.

With the turn of the century, a new chapter of Pakistan and US relation began in the aftermath of September 11 2001. It was rather a reluctant alliance based on utter pragmatism. Pakistan had not forgotten the US betrayal of the 1990s after Pakistan played such a pivotal role in Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Knowing that Pakistan has pivoted towards China, United States was nevertheless in desperate need for its logistical supply route to Afghanistan. In a time when the world was sympathetic to attack on the United States and the invasion of Afghanistan was inevitable, Pakistan could not possibly turn rogue and continue officially supporting Taliban. The lifting of sanctions and economic assistance was another significant incentive for Pakistan to support the US invasion of Afghanistan. Therefore, it was very much a needs-based short term transactional relationship.

Despite the knowledge that many of the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership were given sanctuaries in Pakistan territory, United States proclaimed Pakistan a major non-NATO ally with a lucrative economic package for its role in the War on Terror. Since 2001, United States has given over $30 billion to Pakistan under security pretence, and the dubious “coalition support fund” program. This largesse was not given to Pakistan in good will but reluctantly provided to a regional power whose minimalist cooperation was nonetheless essential to remaining in Afghanistan. In as late as April 2015, United States military-industrial-complex approved sale of $952 million dollar weaponry consisting of helicopters, missiles and communication equipment under the façade that arming Pakistan will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States.

States comprising the anarchic international arena operate on basis of interest and power. Pakistan’s power at regional level is significant and the Afghan state would pale in comparison. As such, a rational state would value alliance with Pakistan over Afghanistan without any hesitation. China, Russia, Iran, central and South Asians are continuously strengthening their relation with Pakistan. Even India would value a close relation with Pakistan over Afghanistan. The United States knew that by siding with India in the 1990s, it had lost a significant ally. Today, if Pakistan were to distance itself from China and re-join the Western alliance, the United States would serve Afghanistan in a plate to Pakistan. Afghan liberals in Kabul are completely oblivious to this damning point.

Total war is out of question:

It has been abundantly clear for sometimes now that Pakistan is playing a fatal role in Afghanistan. From sabotaging Afghan economy, to influencing Afghan politicians. From border skirmishes, insurgency support, to outright terrorists acts taking place in Afghanistan. We have all known it, but have not been able to show concrete proof, particularly in the latter case. The administration of Hamid Karzai was successful in constant and consistent empty protest. A chronic outcry that had become very stale. It is pointless to discuss what could the previous regime have done about Pakistan. The begging question is what can be done about the undeclared total war that Pakistan pursues today?

While President Ashraf Ghani is right that Afghanistan is at a critical condition, the idea of fist to force is more of a political statement. Let’s be very clear on this: covert operations, insurgency and terrorism have been the modus operandi of Pakistan. Since its very creation, the Punjabi Establishment has used it first with India over Kashmir and then in Afghanistan over the region. Pakistan has almost seventy years of experience in total war, largely thanks to training by the United States. Although briefly under the late president Najibullah, Afghan intelligence service attempted to reciprocate Pakistan’s covert operation, it paled in comparison. This is when afghan intelligence was being heavily equipped and trained by the infamous KGB.

We should not respond Islamabad atrocity in kind for two fundamental reasons; because it is wrong and we will ultimately lose. It is absolutely staggering how certain politicians can appear on national television and claim that Afghanistan should carry terrorist activities inside Pakistan. We were never a terrorist sponsored state and should never pretend to see salvation in such approach. It is morally wrong to do to innocent population in Pakistan what is being done to innocent Afghans. We will endure this wretched condition, we will persevere, and history will remember the terror inflicted on our innocent people.

If Pakistan invaded Afghanistan in conventional terms, it would most definitely face defeat. Even a million strong Pakistan army would face the same fate of its predecessors that have tried to occupy Afghanistan. As impeccable as Pakistan military apparatus is, it will be no match to Afghan resilience. This is precisely why Pakistan exerts its power over Afghanistan by propping up insurgency. We are a fragmented nation, and Pakistan has 40 years’ experience in exploiting our weaknesses. Long gone are the days, when the Kabul regime had credibility in the eyes of the Pathans and Balochs in their struggle against the Punjabi Establishment. They have rightly chosen to take their struggle alone as we cannot be depended. It is therefore safe to presume that we are at grave loss when it comes to confronting Pakistan by any means.

Pakistan is too big to fail:

Just like the corporate tycoons of Wall Street that brought the financial crisis in 2008 without major repercussion, for the sole reason of being too big to fail. So does today, Pakistan wreak havoc in Afghanistan fully knowing it cannot be touched. Yes, there will be Afghan outrage, occasional international condemnation, but the fact remains that nobody can do anything to Pakistan. One reason being, that the repercussion of a failed state in Pakistan would be catastrophic to the region and the world. If a nuclear power state collapses in volatile region such as Asia, the crisis it would produce would be unimaginable. Nobody wants this. Minorities in Pakistan would suffer if a radical DAESH inspired group emerge. Certainly Afghanistan and India would be as much victims of the power vacuum. It would not only halt rise of China but effectively challenge Asia’s growth. The effect of Pakistan turning into a Somalia would be unfathomable. Instability in Pakistan will entail security threat to all its neighbours and embolden transnational insurgency. Pakistan knows this bitter truth and the world have learned to live with the state of Pakistan.

Solution: Afghanistan must locate itself in Asia

This year president Xi Jinping on his first visit to Pakistan stated that “it feels as if i am going to visit the home of my own brother”. This fraternal affection is rooted in the historical relation between the two neighbourly states. The visit did not disappoint as Chinese president announced a $46 billion investment in Pakistan. A new era and a new alliance emerged in the region. Pakistan and China entrenched a relation for decades to come. While the close alliance with the United States defined Pakistan in the latter half of the 20th century, it will be the alliance with China that will define Pakistan in this century. Historically it has been Afghanistan at the crossroad of Asia, but it is Pakistan that cements the road to China’s economic rise. The construction of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) attests to an enduring long term relation between the two states. This alliance will bring Pakistan security and prosperity while making China a two ocean power.

Afghanistan is poetically imagined as the heart of Asia. How can a heart bleed for decades while the body prospers? Such has been the demise of Afghanistan in the last three decades with simultaneous growth of Asia. A heart, a liver or a kidney, regardless of the analogy, the undying truth is that Afghanistan is a key part of Asia. This is an Asian century and Afghanistan must find a place for itself in Asia. The future of Afghanistan cannot be decided in Washington, Geneva or even Qatar. It also does not mean that Islamabad, Beijing or Tehran should become the focal point for a peaceful future for Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan must take ownership of its future by once again situating Kabul in Asia. It must root out Western dependency and integrate into an Asian hemisphere. By 2050, China and India will become the top two world economies. Iran and Pakistan are thenext-11 global power and not far behind the BRICS countries in terms of economic growth. The last thirteen years of war in Afghanistan has been Western imposed but Asian sanctioned. All the key neighbours were present in the Bonn Conference and influenced the outcome to their benefit. Hence, they are not immune from the responsibility of working for a peaceful future for Afghanistan.

Today it is clearly visible that Afghanistan has reached the nadir of its destruction. The Asian growth cannot continue unscathed if this condition persists in Afghanistan. It seems the neighbours have largely recognized that the war can no longer be contained within the lives of Afghans. The Asian growth is not fully guaranteed as the recent stock market turmoil in China revealed. A peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan is an essential recipe to Asian growth. Kabul must certainly do its part. It seems President Ashraf Ghani has realized this by making his first official visit to Beijing, not Washington.  The narrative of the Afghan president is largely framed in an Asian future. Negotiating peace with Taliban with thorough Pakistani engagement was a smart choice and still remains the only viable option. The problem is that the government in Kabul is a direct product of the last 14 years of Western domination. The regime must win the trust of its neighbour states. A good start will be abandoning the western liberal ideology that still clouds the capital and excusing the hundreds of Western expats serving as Afghan experts in advisory roles.


One thought on “5 reasons Pakistan won’t change its Afghan policy”

  1. Great and thorough analysis of the generational flaws in Afghan policy, sad you could not think beyond ‘too big to fail’ syndrome; that’s what they once said of Lehman Brothers. Surprises in store as the great game plays out!


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