IT has been almost two decades since the ‘war on terror’ exploded into the public consciousness. Today, it seems like ‘terrorism’ and the unending struggle against it could be around forever. So it is not to be taken lightly that there is talk that the original site of the ‘war on terror’ — Afghanistan — is now ripe for peace.
Or at least Donald Trump would appear to think so. The American president recently announced a drawdown of American troops from the war-ravaged country, much to the chagrin of many elements within the Washington’s defence establishment. All indications are that Trump will see through a ‘peace’ settlement of some kind, with the Pentagon even announcing somewhat bizarrely that it will offer ‘safety and job security’ to Taliban willing to join the ‘peace process’.
Needless to say, the dramatic series of pronouncements in Washington has truly set the cat amongst the pigeons in the wider region.
Our very own Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi kicked off the show with a whirlwind tour of four neighbouring countries, ostensibly to garner support for Pakistan to be given a stake in the emergent dispensation to our west. It is common knowledge that Pakistani strategists have always desired a ‘friendly government’ in Kabul and our historic links to the Afghan Taliban mean we cannot be ignored in any final settlement. Iran too has made its intentions clear, with a high-ranking official of the country’s Supreme National Security Council in Kabul earlier this week for talks with the Taliban.
Does the contemporary state really want to rid the world of terrorism?
China and Russia will surely put in their two pence sooner or later, as will India. The question, however, is whether any of the major protagonists are truly serious about peace, or if, in fact, Afghanistan will continue to be viewed as a ‘buffer zone’ as it has been for the better part of two centuries in which big powers compete for strategic control. Just as importantly, is the quite nebulous entity that goes by the name of ‘Afghan Taliban’ a coherent and unified force that can be brought to the negotiation table?
That the US Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s announcement — along with the drawdown in Afghanistan, plans have been outlined to withdraw all American troops from Syria — indicates that there is anything but a well-thought-out strategy in place for how exactly to establish peace in Afghanistan. Indeed, like much that Trump thinks up, the logic behind this announcement also seems to be on making sensational headlines.
By Washington’s own admission, the Taliban still control large parts of the Afghan countryside, which in any case makes clear that the ‘war on terror’ — or at the very least its Afghan theatre — continues to be an abysmal failure more than 18 years after its initiation. It also confirms that liberal elements in Pakistan and the wider region who supported the American invasion — tacitly or otherwise — were mistaken in their belief that extremist ideologies can be defeated via military means.
Certainly the same holds for the Pakistani experience with ‘terrorism’. Time and again we have been told that high-profile military operations against terrorists hiding away in deep dark places that we cannot see will eventually result in safety and security for ordinary Pakistanis. It is true that there has been a reduction in the number of violent terrorist attacks in recent years, but it is absolutely not true that ideologies of violence, especially pertaining to religion, have been defeated. In fact, the religious right has diversified, and in recent times we have even seen the purportedly ‘peace-loving’ Barelvis imposing themselves through brazen means upon the body politic.
Beyond the rhetoric, then, one has to ask the question: does the contemporary state really want to rid the world of terrorism? Or is it a convenient bogey that continues to serve the interests of war-making establishments and munitions industries alike? Even the entertainment industry would be poorer without war against terrorists to market!
It is the long-suffering people of Afghanistan — as well as war-torn parts of Pakistan — that remain the biggest victims of both extremists who use violence as a means to an end and the unending operations against ‘terrorism’. I wish I could feel confident that Trump’s announcement and the series of reactions that it has triggered will move Afghanistan and the wider region towards peace. Unfortunately, I worry that the piecemeal measures that have been initiated under the guise of a ‘peace settlement’ do not even scratch the surface of the cynical interests that have kept the region enveloped in an unending spiral of violence for decades.
For genuine peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the wider region the structural underpinnings of what we call terrorism must be addressed. More than anything else, all states need to be held to account for the actions that they take ostensibly in the name of the people that they claim to defend.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2018