With a new government in power in Pakistan it may be opportune to analyse our foreign policy with regard to two of our neighbours, Afghanistan and India and perhaps, develop an alternative narrative in this regard.
In a separate blog entitled “Another look at our Kashmir policy” I have talked about our policy on Kashmir and India. Here I would like to focus on Pakistan’s Afghan policy.
A key element of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan came into vogue in the 1970s and 80’s. This was the idea that a friendly Afghanistan is critical to the security and stability of Pakistan and that this would provide strategic depth to Pakistan were it to be attacked by India on the Eastern front.
First a bit of history. If we look at Pakistan-Afghanistan relations we will recall that Afghanistan was the ONLY country which, in 1947, had voted against the membership application of the newly formed country of Pakistan in the United Nations. Afghanistan has also, always disputed the sanctity of the Afghanistan- Pakistan border based on the Durand line. All this was well before the Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan and the advent of the Afghan Mujahidin or the Taliban movement.
We also need to recall that while Pakistan played a key role in ridding Afghanistan of Soviet forces, in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet defeat, the Afghan forces which came to power in Kabul at the end of this war, were not well disposed towards Pakistan. As a matter of fact, the Pakistan Embassy was torched by these forces immediately after the Soviet withdrawal – the only Embassy in that country that suffered this fate.
We also recall that all major Afghan politicians, including Mr. Karzai and even some members of the Northern alliance, enjoyed the hospitality of Pakistan for several years during the time of severe unrest in Afghanistan. (Indeed it is said that Mullah Omar and his coterie are currently resident in Pakistan even today). However what is also seen is that once our guests return home, their posture and policies do not remain friendly towards Pakistan.
Even the friendliest Afghan Government has always kept their own interests, as they see them, first as indeed any rational government would. We see that Pakistan has been able to exercise very little leverage with them.
We also see that the concept of strategic depth has literally back fired. (A phrase, I think first used by Mr. Zafar Hilaly). It is the Afghans who have repeatedly sought refuge in Pakistan, either in the form of 2-3 million refugees or in the form of Taliban formations, who have used Pakistan as a safe haven to launch attacks on their opponents in their homeland. Both these factors have created significant difficulties for Pakistan.
Some of the above incidents will appear quite baffling to a Pakistani who would expect an excellent response from a neighbouring Islamic country for which Pakistan has made tremendous sacrifices and whose people share many cultural and religious values. To explain this, one needs to ask the question whether there is a basic conflict of interest in the objectives of Pakistan and those of Afghanistan that overrides any religious affinity?
We note The Pashtuns residing on both sides of the border have always demonstrated great affection for each other – as indeed is natural. There has traditionally been a free flow of people across the very soft and porous border. Some of the tribal people routinely move across the border in large numbers to combat the vagaries of the seasons and in response to economic needs.
Even the major Pashtun politicians on our side routinely say that both Afghanistan and Pakistan are their homeland. Please recall that the famous Pashtun leader, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who died in Peshawar in 1988, asked to be and was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. It is said that this was a symbolic move by Mr. Ghaffar Khan, as this would allow his dream of Pashtun unification to live even after his death. Also note that the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had gone to Peshawar, to pay his tributes to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Indian government declared a five-day period of mourning in his honor [Wikipedia).
Afghanistan considers the Pashtuns on this side of the border as their natural compatriots. It has been said openly by the Taliban and others that the border of Pakistan really starts at the border of KPK and Punjab.
A Pashtun majority Afghanistan would always consider a border that divides the Pashtun population into two parts as an artificial construct and would make efforts to unify the two parts of the Pashtun population even though the Pashtun population on this side of the border may no longer share these sentiments. In doing so it may well collaborate with other interest that could help in this endeavor. It seems that the linguistic and cultural affinity trump religious affiliations.
Perhaps, this could be one factor, which could explain some of Afghanistan’s behavior towards Pakistan.
Therefore, my first point: While formulating a policy towards Afghanistan, it is necessary that Pakistan recognizes this basic element of conflict in the interests of the two countries and the limits that this imposes on the extent of friendship possible between the two countries and manages its expectations vis –a- vis Afghanistan on a more rational and realistic basis.
Secondly and perhaps importantly, we need to recognize that countries in the South Asia region and those on the Western border of Pakistan will see economic advantage in developing good relations with India which has developed into a major economic power house in the region. This behavior is not limited to Afghanistan.
We see this in the case of Iran also. Please note that this is despite the fact that Pakistan’s stand on Iran related issues at the UN Security Council is more pro Iran than that of India. India has voted with the West in matters related to the NPT against Iran, where-as Pakistan has not. However, Iran strives to develop good relations with India to serve its own economic interests.
Therefore, my second point, we cannot expect everybody in our neighborhood to consider our “so called adversary” as their adversary also.
Finally, I think our policies with regard to Afghanistan need to more Pakistan-Centric.
We first interfered in Afghan affairs at the behest of the US and right wing forces in our own country to help the Americans throw out the Soviets. In hind sight this may not have been the best course to follow.
Then we continued the meddling in the post-Soviet period and trying to establish a pro Pakistan government there in our quest for strategic depth. This caused tremendous difficulties. Finally in the post 9/11 world we want to help the Pashtun Afghans and the Taliban throw out the US! and win against the non-Pashtun factions.
We need to ask- does all this make sense?
As they say, one should resist the temptation to sleep with an elephant (Super Power). When you do so, you can get crushed- as we have.
Perhaps, all we need to do is to realize that the key to solving our problems on the western frontier really lies on the eastern border and proceed to solve those problems.
If the relations with India were to be normalized then the necessity of having a friendly Government in Kabul would lose its urgency.