RED ZONE FILES: Telling the Pakistan story

Published August 12, 2021
In this file photo, Afghan security forces inspect the site of a car bomb attack in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. — Reuters/File
In this file photo, Afghan security forces inspect the site of a car bomb attack in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. — Reuters/File

America lost. Pakistan did not. How do you tell this to the world?

The story of Afghanistan is writing itself on the battlefield. It is not a work of fiction. The story of Afghanistan is also being written in Western capitals. Parts of it may be a work of fiction. In a world divided between countries that can communicate effectively, and those that cannot, Pakistan is finding itself on the wrong side of the equation. Ineptitude has a price. And it is especially unfortunate when reality begins to belie perception. The rapid Taliban advance in the face of Afghan National Army’s crumbling resistance has triggered a wave of concern among all stakeholders that a military solution may be unveiling itself at the expense of a negotiated settlement. Threaded into this is another dangerous concern being expressed by western governments — that somehow Pakistan is playing the spoiler and aiding the Taliban in their offensive.

Inside the Red Zone, there is worry that such a perception could precipitate a process of scapegoating Pakistan for the failures of the US and its allies in Afghanistan. Such scapegoating glosses over inconvenient facts that paint a picture quite different from the one being sketched on the international media landscape — and it presents a twin challenge to Pakistan. First, how to stop the turbulence in Afghanistan from spilling over across our border; and second, how to tell our own story instead of allowing others to tell it for us.

Every good story should have a proper framing. Pakistan’s is clear: (1) We want a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan because a Taliban military takeover would have adverse consequences for us; (2) Taliban victory would spur extremist tendencies in Pakistan and embolden terror groups like TTP, Al Qaeda and IS; (3) we have used all the leverage we had on the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table in Doha; (4) America legitimised Taliban, not us, by signing an agreement with them; (5) by exiting Afghanistan without finalising an agreement on power-sharing, America has reduced its leverage — and that of Pakistan — on the Taliban — because the insurgents are free to impose their military will on any future set-up in Kabul; (6) our border management system — including fencing, electronic surveillance, and forts — reduces the possibility of undetected cross-border movement to a negligible level; (7) we have tried to play the honest broker but the Kabul government has rebuffed most of our offers of cooperation in recent years; (8) we cannot take any kinetic action against millions of Afghans inside Pakistan; (9) we cannot afford an influx of refugees; and (10) we will continue to work with regional stakeholders through the “Troika Plus” platform to facilitate a solution.

The building blocks of this story contain various ingredients mixed together to cement the narrative. These range from details of how our western border has been secured (90 per cent fencing complete, 575 of the 843 forts constructed, technical sensors to detect all kinds of movement installed), to the number of people deployed along the border (200,000), to the deep engagement of Pakistani officials with both the Taliban and Kabul government in a continuing — though frustrating — bid to make them agree on broad-based power arrangement.

It is a good story and it has a better context. There has been a strategic shift in the Pakistani state’s orientation in the last few years. The shift is a direct outcome of a firm realisation within the highest echelons of the state that militancy and extremism via non-state actors have wreaked enormous harm on the country. If the state of yesteryear used jihadi groups for its stated objectives, the state of today will have none of it. Re-orienting the state’s direction is an arduous task. More so when the state is fighting threats on multiple fronts. Yet, the last decade has witnessed this transformation taking shape, often at the cost of precious lives lost to terrorism.

Read: The new Afghanistan challenge

But some accusations have never been laid to rest, like the one about the so-called ‘good Taliban and bad Taliban’. It is this question that has now been re-weaponised in the wake of America’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s devastating offensive against the Afghan government forces. This is despite the fact that senior Pakistani officials have been saying fairly openly that they consider the Afghan Taliban and TTP as two sides of the same coin.

The narrative being built to scapegoat Pakistan is a dangerous one. On Wednesday National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry held a press briefing to show how social media trends against Pakistan were aimed at fuelling this narrative and were being orchestrated from abroad. This narrative formation, it is said, is being done at a tactical level by elements within the Kabul government, and at a strategic level by western governments to carve a perception that Pakistan has not done enough to persuade Taliban on the issue of negotiated settlement.

This presents a problem for policymakers inside the Red Zone. Ever since the former US president Donald Trump had announced a date for withdrawal of his forces from Afghanistan, Pakistani officials had been pushing the Taliban to agree to a deal with the Americans, even though these officials maintained Washington would have landed a better deal had it listened to Pakistan and negotiated from a position of strength a few years ago. Even after Trump lost and Joe Biden occupied the Oval Office, Pakistan and other stakeholders were assured that America would undertake a conditions-based withdrawal, which meant that it would only leave once an agreement for post-withdrawal arrangement in Kabul was signed. The sudden announcement by Biden to withdraw without any agreement took everyone by surprise, even the British, according to insiders.

The ensuing chaos has to end up at someone’s doorstep. This is where Islamabad’s problem is becoming grave. This gravity can be explained like so: Pakistan’s actions may speak louder than its words but today it needs its words to speak far louder than its actions.

Over the years the Pakistani state has garnered a number of failures, but none — as it turns out today — as glaring and painful as its inability, incapacity and incompetence in telling its own story. This failure is yet again on display and the state is clueless how to address it.

Every failure extracts a price. This one has already started doing so. It is evidenced by a long line of government ministers desperately trying to push a narrative to counter the scapegoating that is already under way — and falling flat in their efforts. In an age of complex and competing global communication, the Pakistani state is flailing about wildly, not knowing how to focus on the right audience in the right language through the right platform with the right message via the right medium. The State’s failure to acknowledge the nature of the problem, and its ineptitude to decipher the complexity of the solution, has led it to depend on pedestrian ways to tackle it. Despite billions of rupees spent on building and upgrading information set-ups, the grim reality is that the Pakistani state has no idea how to weave a story around its actions, and how to narrate it to those who need to hear it.

America lost. Pakistan did not. Go tell this to the world. If you can.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2021

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