The long war

06 Sep, 2019

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IN the murky waters of international politics, it is almost impossible to separate rhetoric from reality. So it is with the impending Afghan ‘peace agreement’ that will at least formally bring an end to the war that began in 2001 when American-led NATO troops invaded and then occupied that country.

In fact, a long war has raged in Afghanistan since long before 9/11 and the subsequent actions of the Bush administration. And by all accounts, the long war will continue after the Trump administration withdraws the majority of US troops in Afghanistan as part of a deal with the Taliban.

Our preoccupation over the past few weeks with Kashmir has translated into very little comment about the Afghan ‘peace’ negotiations and its implications for Pakistan, Zahid Hussain’s recent piece a much needed exception. In my estimation, Washington’s overtures to the Taliban dovetail nicely with our establishment’s strategic ambitions; whether or not what comes to pass will benefit Pakistan’s people, and particularly the Pakhtun populations living in the Pak-Afghan border zone, is another matter entirely.

The media and the PTI government may not choose to pay attention, but there is enough recent anecdotal evidence from a number of tribal districts to suggest that militants — whether they go by the name of Taliban or not — are rearing their heads once again. Social media campaigners have circulated reports of pamphleteering by known militants warning local residents to conform to ‘Islamic’ moral norms. A handful of public gatherings have also been organised in which ominous threats have been issued to progressive activists and journalists.

States certainly play cynical games.

All of this sounds eerily familiar. It feels like a long time back now but it was only a few years ago that Pakistani mainstream media was awash with reportage and commentary about the country’s ‘Talibanisation’. With the TV-consuming urban middle classes in a state of panic on account of regular bomb blasts in major cities, ‘public opinion’ seemed to coalesce around a strategy designed to destroy militant strongholds, all of which were said to be in Pakhtun areas like (North and South) Waziristan, Bajaur, Khyber and Swat.

However, it is important to be reminded that many of the military operations were preceded by ‘peace deals’ with various militant factions. Which is to say that ‘peace’ was often a precursor to even more brutalisation of society. The incidence of terrorism has decreased markedly in recent years, and so has our attention to the phenomenon known as ‘Talibanisation’ that for a while appeared to represent the single biggest challenge to state and society. In short, we pushed the problem back under the proverbial carpet, and to this day have yet to dismantle the ideological foundations of extremist thought in our educational system, media and other societal institutions.

To put it differently, religious militancy is currently in a dormant phase within Pakistan. Quite aside from the rapidity with which the issue of ‘Talibanisation’ came to dominate ‘public opinion’ some years ago and then disappear almost entirely from the mainstream, it is surely reasonable to expect that religious militants will be empowered to reassert themselves in Pakistan after they are officially reintegrated into the Afghan power-sharing arrangement via a peace deal with Washington.

This is all the more plausible if one considers that Pakistan’s official stand vis-à-vis the Afghanistan war has always been that the (Afghan) Taliban are a genuine stakeholder in that country and that any settlement to halt hostilities will have to include them. By all accounts, the Trump administration has accepted Pakistan’s stand and effectively asked Islamabad to facilitate the ‘peace’ negotiations with the Taliban.

Of course Pakistan’s off­icial policy has also been to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban (as a genuine stakeholder) and those Taliban factions operating within Pakistan of a less friendly ilk. But such distinctions are surely impossible to maintain in practice. Indeed, as I have already stated, militants have already started to make their presence felt in certain districts on our side of the Pak-Afghan border.

The portents are clear. It is plainly evident that violence in Afghanistan has spiked ever since the ‘peace’ negotiations began a few months ago. America-fortified Kabul now suffers a blast every few days, so one can only imagine the situation in the war-ravaged countryside.

States certainly play cynical games, and the people of our region, whether in Kashmir, Kabul, Waziristan or many other such war zones have paid a price in blood for generations. As another phase of the long war unfolds across the region, it is essential that those who bravely speak the language of a real peace — which will come to pass when ordinary people can live their lives without fear and with the expectation of justice for all — continue to stand up and be counted.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2019