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US keen to wash its hands of Afghanistan, says scholar

Updated February 02, 2019

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VALI Nasr speaks on the opening day of the Adab Festival at Sindh Governor House.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
VALI Nasr speaks on the opening day of the Adab Festival at Sindh Governor House.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: There was a nip in the air. The weather wasn’t particularly cold, but cold enough for book lovers to wear woollies.

But the real warmth that they were expecting was to come from erudite keynote speeches on the first day of the inaugural Adab Festival Pakistan at Sindh Governor House. And they got that on Friday.

Explore: Will Karachi's brand-new Adab Festival change lit fest culture or serve more of the same?

It all began with introductory speeches. The co-founder and co-director of the event Ameena Saiyid said the intention of holding the event was to involve every part of the nation, celebrate literary achievements of writers and encourage creativity in all its luminous forms.

Governor House hosts Adab Festival, latest addition to Karachi’s literary scene

Co-director Asif Farrukhi said he and Ms Saiyid had been involved in organising similar programmes and in that regard Adab Festival Pakistan was a milestone because it marks a decade of literature festivals in the country.

Talking about the difficulties that he and his co-director had to go through for putting up the festival, he remarked that they “persisted” and “survived”.

To elucidate his point, he recalled the late Fahimda Riaz and recited a poem by her.

Stefan Winkler, director of Goethe Institut, said the institute has been part of such functions in Pakistan. He recalled Allama Iqbal’s admiration for German thinkers and writers such as Nietzsche and Goethe, ending his address by quoting Hermann Hesse: “Of all the worlds invented by humankind, the world of books is the greatest.”

Sindh Governor Imran Ismail and Khalid Mahmood also spoke.

Renowned scholar Vali Nasr delivered one of the three keynote addresses of the evening. He said though the topic he had was ‘US foreign policy for South Asia’, new developments have taken place. This led him to give a background of the three US administrations [Bush, Obama and Trump] since 9/11 and the way they looked at the Middle East and South Asia.

Trump and statecraft

Mr Nasr said President Trump had brought about an enormous change in conducting statecraft. The key question is: how much that change, which he is trying to bring about, will last?

After 9/11 one rubric has covered the relationship between the US and Middle East/South Asia: ‘concern with Islamic radicalism’. The wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have had this concern.

Know more: 'Trump has no understanding of the South Asian region,' Imran says

Now there’s a very different president in the US. Aside from the manner in which he conducts statecraft, he has a singular view of things. For instance, he thinks economic relations between countries are a zero-sum game — one wins and the other loses. He doesn’t believe in globalisation. He believes in ‘America first’. He doesn’t believe in permanent alliances. He has a transactional view of foreign policy.

Mr Nasr said there was a world of difference between the Bush and Obama administrations on one hand, and the current one on the other. But when it comes to the Middle East and South Asia, there are certain continuities which reflect the general mood of the American public.

The degree of Washington’s engagement in South Asia and the Middle East has been excessive and has not paid dividends.

At present the US needs oil, but over the next 20 years it would turn into the single largest exporter of oil. It will out-produce Saudi Arabia and Opec.

Mr Nasr said President Obama was the first to challenge this view; he thought the US was overspending in the Middle East, and it hadn’t got it anywhere. He was not convinced that the Middle East was ready for democracy even after the Arab Spring.

Obama had concluded the best thing to do was to start withdrawing from the region.

On Afghanistan, Barack Obama was never convinced that the war there was winnable.

President Trump, during his presidential campaign, wasn’t far off. He was, in fact, most blunt and unequivocal on the issue. He believed that the US should not get involved in wars in Middle East and South Asia.

He was not willing to commit to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. As soon as he came to office, he started talking about reducing troops.

Mr Nasr said Trump sought to contain Iran and be friendly with Saudi Arabia, but that hasn’t worked so far. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have completely washed their hands of Syria.

The fate of Syria is being determined by every country other than Arab countries themselves. The Khashoggi affair has severely damaged Saudi Arabia’s international standing.

Things are now beginning to crystallise for Trump. So he now thinks if Turkey is taking care of the militant Islamic State group, it suits the US well. He is now going to talk about containing Iran, but won’t do anything about it.

Take a look: Anger, dismay, support — how the world sees US withdrawal from Iran deal

Mr Nasr said since 9/11 Washington’s view of Afghanistan and Pakistan had increasingly narrowed down to the issue of Afghanistan. The Bush administration’s view of the Musharraf government as an ally was a high point for Pakistan. It changed during the Obama administration. He thought that Islamabad’s agenda in Afghanistan was not aligned with Washington’s.

Also read: Trump’s latest salvo

Focus on Afghanistan

Mr Nasr said Trump had been focused on the Afghanistan issue. As soon as he took over, he began pushing the Pentagon with a question: why isn’t the war in Afghanistan ending?

His response to the [current] escalation in Afghanistan is not a surge in troops. He is of the view that this war is not winnable. Therefore, US soldiers have to leave the country.

But for that to happen, Washington must have some sort of agreement with the Taliban. Trump doesn’t care that his dealing with the Taliban will impact his base as the average American is not going to obsess about the Taliban.

“If there is any existentialist threat to America, it’s Trump himself.”

Mr Nasr said these are interesting times for Pakistan. If an agreement is reached in Afghanistan, there are different conditionalities: will the Taliban play ball, will Trump be re-elected, how good the deal is?

But if we were to assume that it [deal] moves forward, then it would be a period that Pakistan and the US follow the same script in a genuine way. Another question is: what if the US leaves Afghanistan and the conflict doesn’t remain an issue for it.

But it’s also an opportunity for Pakistan to make a fresh start by thinking beyond security concerns.

Last but not the least, there are other big players in the region: Russia and China. China and the US are going through a change of relationship, presenting challenges as well as opportunities for Pakistan. “It’s no longer going to be just between Pakistan and the US.”

Arfa Syeda Zahra, the other keynote speaker, addressed the audience in Urdu, as she always does and claims she loves to speak in Urdu, although she doesn’t hate English.

She argued literature and language went hand in hand with culture (tehzeeb), which is the idea of the Adab Festival.

Dr Ishrat Husain, in his keynote speech, argued that the discourse in Pakistan was inward-looking, whereas there are certain dilemmas or issues on a global scale that can affect us. The first one was that the ideological schism between left and right has become irrelevant. Second, global governance has become complex; third, technological disruption; fourth, the shift of economic balance of power between the US and China; fifth, exponential growth in information; sixth, climate change.

After the opening session, Getz Pharma prize for fiction in English was given to Kamila Shamsie for her novel Home Fire.

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2019