IT is not just about the hostility of the government in Kabul; more troubling is the fact that the adverse sentiments in Afghanistan towards Pakistan are deeply entrenched in the public. The indignation has heightened over the past years, with most people in Kabul blaming Pakistan for their suffering. Those feelings are especially evident in urban and educated sections of Afghan society. There are very few who see Pakistan in a positive light.
This was very clear during my interaction last week with young students at a private university in Kabul. Education is one area that has seen massive progress over the last one decade in this country, despite worsening political instability and the spreading insurgency. Hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in more than one dozen universities in the city — a marked transformation from the days of the retrogressive Afghan Taliban rule.
Most students I interacted with in a seminar shared similar views about Pakistan being a villain that is responsible for many of Afghanistan’s problems. Among the audience, there were many who were either born in Pakistan or whose parents had lived there as refugees for decades. Many complained about Pakistan supporting the insurgents responsible for the death of thousands of Afghans. Distrust of Pakistan is palpable. It is hard to find anyone in the Afghan capital willing to speak in favour of Pakistan.
It is hard to find anyone in the Afghan capital willing to speak in favour of Pakistan.
Ironically, there are many in the cabinet and several high-ranking officials in the Afghan government who spent a large part of their lives in Pakistan and benefited from its hospitality. The resentment is not restricted to any particular ethnic group — it is across the board. Even former Taliban officials who now live in Kabul have little empathy for the country which once patronised them. One is not sure, however, about public sentiments in other parts of the country.
Of course, it is expedient for our civilian and military leadership to dismiss these growing anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan as merely inspired by ‘enemy forces’. This state of denial is, however, not helpful in improving our image. Surely, one cannot deny that there has been a concerted campaign to slander Pakistan and make it a scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong in the war-torn country across the border. Yet one must not gloss over our flawed policies and attitude that are stoking public scepticism inside Afghanistan.
One of the major reasons for Pakistan’s growing isolation is that our entire Afghan policy is built around a skewed security paradigm while diplomacy has taken a back seat. Understandably, four decades of conflict in the region and Pakistan’s position as a front-line state has enhanced the role of the security agencies. But the formulation and implementation of policy should not be left entirely to the security establishment.
In fact, there is great need for diplomacy to take charge in times of conflict. Our foreign policy has suffered hugely because of its direction being determined solely by a national security paradigm that must be corrected in light of the fast-changing geopolitics of the region. Indeed, past baggage and Afghanistan being turned into a centre of a new Great Game does not make it easy for our policymakers to tread the tricky path.
But sticking to the old ways may not help deal with the challenges. Irrespective of whichever government is in power in Kabul we need to work with it and to respect its sovereignty. Our obsession with a ‘friendly’ Pakhtun-dominated government in the past has hugely contributed to public resentment against Pakistan.
One understands the concerns of our security establishment regarding India’s growing presence in Afghanistan, but the issue must not be exaggerated so that it clouds our entire decision-making process. What irritates the Afghans most is our insistence on curtailing India’s role in their country. Its very mention is seen as meddling in their internal matters.
Indeed, Pakistani militant groups having been granted sanctuaries across the border and the alleged Indian connection with these terrorist networks has become a major source of tension between Islamabad and Kabul. But there are also allegations of Afghan insurgent groups operating from inside Pakistani territory.
The question regarding Pakistan’s alleged support for the Taliban insurgents is not only regularly raised at official meetings but also questioned by the public. The rise of Taliban insurgents is seen by the younger generation as the most serious threat to the gains made in the field of education. The number of female students reportedly surpasses that of males in most universities and they want this trend to be protected.
It is not only important to improve relations with the Kabul government, but also to bridge the widening gap with the Afghan people. We have failed to take advantage of our geographical and cultural proximity to win public goodwill and strengthen our economic and trade ties in order to neutralise the antagonists. It is not just geopolitics but also geo-economics that should be driving our Afghan policy.
The recent measures taken by Pakistani authorities to send back Afghan refugees and put restrictions on cross-border travel have added to the indignation. Many complain about long queues for visa and difficulties in travelling to Peshawar for medical treatment.
Now many of them are flying to India that is providing a subsidised air travel facility for those requiring medical help. Unnecessary travel restrictions under the pretext of border management have further alienated the Afghans. The move has also affected trade, with Pakistani exporters suffering greater losses.
Although Pakistan remains Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner, the situation may change soon with Iran and Central Asia making significant inroads into the Afghan markets. The move to close down the border for over a month early this year has dealt an irreversible blow to our exports to Afghanistan that had reached between $2 billion and $5bn in 2014.
Such short-sighted and reactive actions have hugely affected our interests in Afghanistan. Hence it is not surprising to see how young Afghans feel about us.
Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2017