IN his thesis of Soft Power, the Harvard Prof Joseph Nye Jr. argues that in today’s world, victory is not only about militaries, it is as much determined by “whose story wins”.
On this count, Pakistan’s track record is squarely in the negative. You can hardly find a world capital which is willing to accept Pakistan’s version of events on virtually anything related to geopolitics in its neighbourhood. Not only that, Pakistan is seen as part of the problem by most influential players, including its neighbours.
One of the most interesting cases is Afghanistan. Despite all the natural affinities that both sides like to highlight, Pakistan shows up as one of the most disliked countries in polls conducted in Afghanistan.
The knee-jerk Pakistani explanation is that the powers that be in Afghanistan (and their foreign patrons) have used Pakistan as a scapegoat and are intentionally maligning it.
To a certain extent, one would agree that Pakistan’s side of the story is not being heard. It is also true that not many focus on Pakistan’s growing trade ties, its $300m plus investment, its counterterrorism cooperation, however suboptimal, and the like. There is a convenient story built around the negatives which overshadows some of the positive aspects of Pakistan’s efforts. And yes, Pakistan’s concerns have not always been entertained.
But this does not warrant playing ostrich and avoiding the genuine reasons that underpin Kabul’s view.
Some of the common complaints one hears from Afghanistan (and Afghans):
— That the Pakistani security establishment has interfered and manipulated domestic outcomes in Afghanistan without regard for the average Afghan.
— Pakistan’s ethno-centric approach has led it to create a ‘good’ Afghanistan (Pakhtun) versus ‘bad’ (non-Pakhtun) Afghanistan image in its own mind; Islamabad has actively promoted one against the other.
— The ISI has backed violence in Afghanistan since the 1980s, mostly against the erstwhile Northern Alliance, which has limited its partners in the country to the Pakhtun groups. Even there, the preference has been for hardliners.
— Pakistan’s obsession with keeping India out of Afghanistan challenges Afghan sovereignty. India is now a much more liked power and Afghans themselves do not want it to leave, not least because they see it as a buffer against Pakistan’s overreach.
— Afghans don’t have a problem with the people of Pakistan; the natural affinity between Pakhtuns is real. It is the state’s policies that trouble most Afghans.
— Millions of Afghans who have lived in Pakistan at one time or another readily own up to the fond memories but these are overshadowed by the resentment they hold for the overreach of the Pakistani state.
— All said and done, there is also the realisation that Pakistan is the most important neighbour and one whom Kabul must maintain positive ties with.
The sum total of all this is an Afghan mindset that views Pakistan negatively and with significant resentment.
This should not be too difficult for an average Pakistani mind to understand, especially when we tend to be allergic to virtually everything on this list ourselves.
Note how similar the list is to the complaints Pakistan has vis-à-vis the US: interfering policies; lack of respect for sovereignty; supported dictators in the past; supporting India over Pakistan; not keeping Pakistan’s interests in mind when devising policies; problem is not American people — indeed, millions of Pakistanis live in the US — but Washington’s official policies; and yes, we don’t want a divorce of the relationship but the terms must be recalibrated.
To be sure, I am not suggesting that the Afghan perceptions are all objective realities or uncontestable (just as is the case with Pakistani concerns vis-à-vis the US). Indeed, Kabul spins its own fair share of conspiracy theories.
But Islamabad needs to introspect, and do so urgently.
For one, for all the emphasis on natural affinity, Afghanistan is no longer well understood. Pakistan’s view seems dated; it has failed to appreciate the changes that have taken place in Afghanistan over the past decade.
Afghanistan may still remain tribal at the core but a more modern configuration of governance is not out of the question. The Pakhtuns, a plurality, may still be the largest ethnic grouping but the minority groups have gained tremendously over the past two or three decades; they are now much more organised and have significant clout. Moreover, even large segments of the Pakhtun groups (including some hard-liners) have little goodwill left for Pakistan.
Allegiances to traditional power bases have not disappeared but the inflow of billions of dollars in foreign funding over the past decade has created new hubs of power and a more complex web of interlocutors, most of which the Pakistani state has not reached out to. Foreign interests have emerged anew, with most states opposing Pakistan’s traditional partners; there is a realistic possibility of Islamabad being on the wrong side of virtually every other interested state’s preferences for Afghanistan in the post-2014 scenario.
If Pakistanis feel the US needs to understand Pakistan and its changing dynamics afresh, the logic is equally true for Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghans. Policies now have to be geared towards coexistence with other players. For one, Islamabad has to reconcile with the Indian presence.
Next, Pakistan must work with the post-2014 political dispensation that takes power in Afghanistan as long as it emerges from an Afghan-led process (this is true for all parties involved).
Third, economics needs to be the principal lens when approaching Kabul. Transit rights, pipelines, port facilities, greater trade and investment, all will provide Pakistan a more commanding position vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the region.
Fourth, Pakistan needs to do a much better job at telling its story. This is not only true in Afghanistan but globally. Incidentally, doing so will be much easier if the above-mentioned steps are taken in tandem.
These measures and not crude security-centric policies are the best means of addressing Pakistan’s fundamental concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Such a policy vision will make Afghans the principal buffers against any attempts to position their country as hostile to Pakistan. Coupled with Pakistan’s natural geographical and cultural advantage, this is as good a place as one can hope to be in.
The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.