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A reality check

January 30, 2012

IT is an irony of history that international interest in Afghanistan has nearly always been driven by great strategic contests amongst predatory outside powers.

As ignorant armies motivated by belligerent ideologies of faith or interests of empires clashed by night (and day) in the dramatic mountains and valleys of this ancient land, hundreds of thousands of Afghans perished. The conflict that has raged in Afghanistan for three decades bears witness to this fact.

First, the Soviet Union invoked the Brezhnev doctrine of the irreversibility of Marxist revolutions to invade it though it was also clearly positioning itself better in the new strategic environment created by the Iranian revolution.

Second, the Islamic orientation of the momentous struggle to roll back the Soviet expansion beyond the tacitly agreed geopolitical zones was hijacked by Al Qaeda that blatantly exploited Afghan hospitality and the ideological shallowness of the Taliban. Third, following 9/11, the US selected Afghanistan, together with Iraq, for a massive application of force to reconfigure this part of the world — the Greater Middle East — in accordance with a gospel enunciated by its neo-conservative strategists. Like the Soviet Union, the Americans brought huge armies to an essentially pre-feudal tribal land.

Recently, Ralph Nader argued that the US war in Afghanistan could be called “the most advanced all-seeing invasion in military history” because of the spectacular deployment of futuristic technologies in it. Regrettably, the neighbouring states including Pakistan, Iran and India made as little reference to the travails of the Afghan people in pursuit of their regional interests as did the Great Powers in their global quest for hegemony.

The Afghan wars of the last 30 years have been imagined and projected by governments, analysts and the media in self-serving formulations. Since 2001, the dominant narrative has been that of Osama bin Laden and the global war on terror. Pakistan, a Hard Country

More recently, a reductionist western version has popularised a structural approach that visualises a common 'Af-Pak' space, a kind of extended battleground. Anatol Lieven, the celebrated author of wrote the other day about “a strong tendency in US official circles and in the US media to treat the Pakistani state as the enemy in Afghanistan”.

This untenable over-simplification of a highly complex phenomenon spanning decades has had serious implications especially for Pakistan-US relations, prospects of Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation in setting the stage for a negotiated end of the military conflict and for the tone and tenor of India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan. It is important to wind down the battle of perceptions so that this war- ravaged land can exist and flourish outside the strategic calculus of major powers.

Afghanistan is not the only reason for a downturn in Islamabad's relations with Washington but it is easily the most important cause of the current crisis in them. In American perception, Pakistan has been ambivalent about the Taliban, has not done enough to deny them sanctuaries on its side of the border and obstructs western objectives such as the establishment of permanent military bases in Afghanistan.

It is being said that Pakistan threw its weight behind the effort made by Russia, China and Iran to prevent the Istanbul Conference from endorsing a US-backed initiative to legitimise extra-regional oversight of the region; a failure that broke the intended rhythm of conferences in Istanbul, Bonn, Chicago (Nato summit) and Tokyo.

Pakistan is aggrieved that Washington has made impossible demands for the commitment of its armed forces to tasks unilaterally devised by the United States, has tried to keep Pakistan out of the loop in seeking negotiations with the Taliban and above all, encouraged Indian ambitions to assume a strong political and economic role in Afghanistan. Avowedly, Washington has been the catalyst in the recently concluded Indo-Afghanistan strategic accord that provides India with an opening to Kabul's military and security establishment. amour propre

Bilateral tensions have probably passed the peak leaving Washington and Islamabad free to negotiate a considerably scaled-down relationship and thus renew efforts to narrow down differences on Afghanistan. Pakistan may reopen the blocked Nato supply routes under revised terms of engagement; Salala will be an event about which the two sides agree to disagree and yet opt for greater caution in future; the CIA will continue to use drones as the weapon of choice but more sparingly; intelligence services will return to limited cooperation now that the demands of have been partially met; and the overall relationship can settle into a candidly transactional mode even as the American Congress limits military and economic assistance.

On the Indian involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan will not get anything decisive though Washington may become ostensibly more responsive to its concerns. In fact, Pakistan should not fight shy of opening a direct conversation about Afghanistan's future with New Delhi as neither India nor Pakistan can eliminate the other from the Afghan scene. Pakistan's reservations about giving India overland transit are not eternal and should remain on the India-Pakistan agenda.

Pakistan should support the Qatar procedure for establishing contacts with the Taliban with the objective of strengthening it as a genuine Afghan-led process. Some western decisions such as building a very large Afghan army, which will remain beyond Kabul's means for decades, can easily backfire; it may simply fail to act as a cohesive national force if Afghan politicians lose control of the ethnic fault lines.

A greater threat to Pakistan than the putative Indian influence in Kabul lies in another civil war that sucks in neighbours and near neighbours like India into a ruinous replay of the pre-2001 confrontation between the Taliban and the 'Northern Alliance'. There is some irresponsible fringe thinking in the West envisaging messy Balkanisation of the so-called 'Af-Pak' swath of Asia. It is time for Pakistan to develop an independent Afghan policy that contributes to the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and the well-being of its people. In doing so, Pakistan would consolidate its own integrity, cohesion, stability and prosperity.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and ambassador of Pakistan.