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The old dream

August 02, 2015

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

MULLAH Omar is dead. Osama is gone. It has the end-of-an-era ring to it. Which means, soon enough we’ll be, or possibly already are, in the next phase. So, what’s Pakistan’s place in it?

Part of it suggests good news. We’ve taken on the militants internally, nudged the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, aren’t spoiling for a war with India and a second successive set of assemblies are on track to complete their terms. It really isn’t the mid-1990s anymore.

Have a look at Iran and China to see what a difference two decades can make: China’s riches could wash over us if we can get our act together; Iran could soon clamber out of Western isolation, allowing us to plug into the revival there.

Factor in that war with India has never been more remote a possibility because of nuclear weapons and you have a Pakistan with an external outlook that is more positive than anything we’ve seen in a decade. Hell, even relations with the US are more stable than they have been in years.

But it is in Afghanistan and on Afghanistan where some of the less welcome stuff can also be seen. The Pakistani policy seems, for once, relatively straightforward: see if the Afghan government can accommodate the Afghan Taliban; see if the Afghan Taliban are willing to make peace; and try and figure out a way of everyone getting something.

If it works, great — Afghanistan will be relatively peaceful and stable and the danger of encirclement and mischief along the Durand Line will be more manageable for us. The boys will be able to live with it here and China and the US will be happy enough that an implosion in Afghanistan has been avoided.

If it doesn’t work, that’s a bit of a headache but at least we’ll be working with the Americans and the Chinese and they won’t blame us entirely for a semi-implosion.

It’s not like if the insurgency weren’t this intense, the post-Bonn Afghan state would have consolidated itself and become financially viable. That’s a structural flaw that can hardly be blamed on Pakistan. The Americans would understand. As would the Chinese.


Why is a serious and sustained Afghan Taliban presence in Afghanistan in Pakistan’s interest?


In any case, if implosion were to occur, why and how would the outside world, and the US or China in particular, punish Pakistan without risking further ins­tability in a region that nobody wants unravelling?

Pretty good, eh?

Well, not quite. Because it’s the boys controlling the policy, no one seems to have stopped and asked: why is a serious and sustained Afghan Taliban presence in Afghanistan in our — as in Pakistan’s and not just the boys’ institutional — interest?

Why, simply, should our state have a group such as the Afghan Taliban as its principal ally in a country with which we share a long, porous border?

No one asks that because everyone knows no one can influence the policy. The Afghan policy is the domain of the boys and the boys alone and two decades of Mullah Omar’s era in Afghanistan have not changed who calls the foreign policy and national security shots here.

But in the latest twists, you can see the old dream. The whole point to Mullah Omar, from the Pakistani perspective, back in the mid-90s, was that he could end the war, unify Afghanistan, open up the country to trade and investment and gradually take Afghanistan towards its geo-economic destiny: a pipeline, mining and trading economy that lashes together all the centrifugal local and regional forces.

First security, then economy, and then security through economy. For us and Afghanistan. It was quite the dream. When Unocal, Delta and Bridas — American, Saudi and Argentinean — came sniffing around about a trans-Afghan pipeline, the dream turned ecstatic. Then, Osama turned up and the rest is, well, history.

Today, it’s the same dream, but with adjustments made for the existence of a new Kabul. The configuration of power and the concessions to be made are made out to be the trickiest bits.

But once — if — that’s done, there it is, the same dream that lies beyond: a relatively stable country with pipelines criss-crossing it, mines humming with activity, and roads buzzing with container-laden trucks to land and sea ports near and far.

Eventually, the Taliban would send their daughters to school, their wives would gossip about the latest Pakistani soaps on cable TV and the men would debate which country offers the best smuggled electronics and cars, Iran or Pakistan? Taliban Lite, as it were.

Peace, happiness and a good night to you all.

Put that way it does seem worth a shot. Until you realise that that was also the dream of the post-Bonn Afghan state. The one we’ve helped the Afghan Tali­ban fight in the name of religion and nationalism.

Why though? Even today, the Afghan Taliban are our allies, not Ashraf Ghani. Why? Fear of encirclement and of penetration into Balochistan and Fata? Was that ever real? Has the price we’ve paid as a country — not just as an institution — been worth it?

What about the experience of the past two decades anywhere suggests it’s good to have men with guns in their hands and God on their minds as your principal allies?

Perhaps precisely because no one can change the policy now, the rest of us shouldn’t forget what it’s all about. Mullah Omar is dead, but an old dream lives on. It’s a dream pursued here in our — Pakistan’s — name, but has it ever been in our interest?

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2015

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