What went wrong?

Published March 15, 2023
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow National University of Singapore.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow National University of Singapore.

REGARDLESS of whoever ruled Afghanistan, the country has always been a problem for Pakistan. The latter’s strategic planners may have hoped that with the Afghan Taliban’s return to power the problem would be resolved. Instead, it has worsened.

The Taliban’s rise has reflected the larger failure of Afghanistan that has several architects. Pakistan’s own contribution to the failure may be arguable but not so its Afghanistan policy. The policy had been a failure since the 1990s when the Afghans’ bitter wrangling about the implementation of the Peshawar and Makkah accords, negotiated through Pakistan’s painstaking diplomatic efforts, set the stage for unending conflict in the country.

Pakistan has not been a party to the conflict but has been part of it contributing to the Taliban’s success of which we now face the conseque­nces. The truth is there would have been no TTP had there been no Afghan Taliban. They are but two sides of the same coin.

Afghanistan presented challenges affecting Pakistan’s security and economic future, as well as regional stability. But Islamabad saw it as only a security challenge.

We failed to see that the Taliban’s rise, fall and resurgence was, in fact, the culmination of the long process that began with the overthrow of Afghanistan’s monarchy in 1973. And that the struggles for power triggered by the event had merged and collided with the Soviet invasion in 1979, America’s two Afghanistan wars, and the war against terrorism, impacting the social and political dynamics in Afgha­nis­tan and Pakistan, especially among the Pakhtun population along the border.

It enabled jihadist/sectarian currents present in Pakistan to mingle with other extremist and militant organisations in the region, and transnational networks like Al Qaeda. Afghanistan became a hinterland for some, home to others, and the flagship for all when the Taliban ruled the country. When they lost power, the Taliban’s fight became their fight too.

The Afghans have been badly served by their rulers.

The Taliban have returned to power but lack legitimacy and military control. It can be argued they won through a political deal rather than on the battlefield, and face possible resistance by Afghans and threats from new stakeholders such as the IS-K. It is doubtful if they can ever stabilise Afghanistan. And this would have consequences for Pakistan.

Pakistan failed in its Afghanistan policy, but so did the Americans and Afghans. In a nutshell, the causes of American failure were: lack of knowledge of Afghanistan’s history and culture, poor war aims, the Iraq war distraction, frequent changes of strategy and commanding generals, inept Afghan partners, the dual authority of Kabul government and the US whose interests did not always match, and, last but not least, electoral politics in Washington. Finally, America lost the appetite for failure and simply walked out.

Arguably the biggest failure was of the ruling establishment in Kabul. The Afghans are a great people and nation. They should not be ruled by the Taliban. But they have been badly served by their ruling elite who must share the bulk of the responsibility for what has happened to their hapless country.

Afghanistan has ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and tribal fault lines. Historically, its horizontal power structure has been contested by a Pakhtun-dominated elite run by Kabul and regional strongmen, providing for continued power struggles and conflicts within conflicts.

Its competitive and conflict-prone geopolitical environment has offered opportunities to its neighbours to intervene to their advantage. Neither America’s war nor the Taliban were the answer to Afg­h­a­nistan’s foundat­i­onal challenges.

Kabul should have reached out to Pakistan to jointly find a solution to the Taliban problem, which could have happened only in the complicated context of Pak-Afghan relations. Instead, it tried to use America and India to coerce Pakistan to solve the Taliban problem for them. That was never going to work.

Where do we go from here? Afghanistan is a political challenge with a military dimension — and not a military challenge with a political dimension.

The Afghan policy should be developed in a Foreign Office-led but security establishment-supported process. The pursuit of a declaratory policy by one institution and operational policy by another, with one not knowing what the other was doing, was a prescription for failure. It created credibility problems, affecting foreign policy across the board.

We have to now make the best of a bad situation and help Afghanistan by facilitating its international engagement aimed at neither strengthening nor weakening the Taliban, nor a regime change, all of which are bad options.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2023

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