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Afghan hostility

April 14, 2013

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A FEW days’ stay in Kabul is enough to gauge how deeply entrenched anti-Pakistan sentiment is in Afghan society, across the ethnic divide — and particularly among young people.

Traversing Afghanistan by road from Torkham to Mazar-i-Sharif and interacting with people from diverse ethnicities, and social and political backgrounds, what I gathered was the overarching view of Pakistan as an ‘enemy’ country with an agenda to keep Afghanistan destabilised through proxies.

There is no shortage of analysts in Pakistan that will brush aside this rising anti-Pakistan tide as a ‘fashion’: that Pakistan is held responsible for the collective failures of the Afghan government and the international community. An explanation easier to sell to our policymakers is that the ‘India lobby’ is responsible for everything bad in Pak-Afghan affairs.

As the international community is in the process of liquidating its mission in Afghanistan and Afghan Taliban insurgents are knocking at the gates of major population centres, including Kabul, dark clouds of fear and hopelessness are gathering. There is a widespread and desperate desire for reconciliation and the avoidance of a situation where fanatics — both ethnic and religious — will rule the streets.

If the country falls into chaos or internecine wars among the proxy holders again — and this is what seems to be happening — Afghans will pin the blame squarely on Pakistan.

It is not the strength of the Taliban that is upsetting the Afghans. Indeed, the majority of them are confident that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are capable of handling the insurgents. The deep-rooted view is that not only is Pakistan providing safe havens to the insurgents but also full military and financial backing against the ANSF. This is what is instilling the fear of the return of Taliban rule. Delay in reaching out to the Taliban leadership for reconciliation is causing extreme anxiety.

This nervousness is even reflected in the sometimes erratic behaviour of President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan president is so disappointed that he has gone to the extent of putting the US and the Taliban insurgents in the same category: accusing them both of pursuing the agenda of destabilising Afghanistan. However, President Karzai’s anti-US diatribes are not as lethal as his rants against Pakistan.

At the moment, the only thing positive in Afghanistan vis-à-vis Pakistan is the acceptability of Islamabad’s fundamental role in any peace and reconciliation effort with the insurgents.

Afghanistan is passing through a period of political and strategic transition and it is the right time for Pakistan to play a visible role in this. Otherwise, to put it in the words of former Afghan foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the list of “losing opportunities in Afghanistan” will turn Afghans into enemies.

In a private meeting, Dr Abdullah, who now leads a major opposition alliance, counted what he called the golden opportunities lost by Pakistan, from the days of the Mujahideen to the Taliban to post-9/11 in the context of helping the international community stabilise Afghanistan and, more recently, helping to achieve reconciliation with the insurgents.

Afghans see modern Pakistan as the proverbial albatross that can neither be carried nor thrown away. The perceived reluctance of Islamabad in playing a tangible role is forcing the Afghan leadership to go the distance alone, without Pakistan, and look for other alternatives to reach a reconciliation with the Taliban.

President Karzai’s recent visit to Doha was apparently a desperate bid to see the militia representatives himself, at their newly opened political office, after being hugely disappointed by all quarters, including international supporters.

Before undertaking the Qatar trip, the Karzai administration expressed Kabul’s shock and disappointment over what it called “the depth of Pakistan complacency” and the “changing of the goal-post” every time an understanding was reached.

More importantly, this anti-Pakistan public posturing of the Karzai regime came immediately after the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Kabul.

Pakistan’s apparent loss of interest in the Afghanistan endgame may be prompted by the scaling down of the importance of the mission with the US and its coalition partners. In Islamabad’s policy circles, as amongst the majority of the Afghans, the understanding is that the US, Britain, Germany and Nato, etc, are not leaving but shifting their “fighting responsibilities” to the ANSF.

To safeguard its strategic interests, the US and its allies have already named the new endeavour Mission Resolute; this involves staying in the barracks and restricting themselves to the three distinct responsibilities of advising, training and supporting the Afghan security forces.

The international community does not seem very interested in free, fair and transparent elections in Afghanistan. “What we want [in Afghanistan] is ‘acceptable elections’ … least concerned with the language of free, fair and transparent”. This is how a Nato official articulated the policy vis-à-vis the political transition in Afghanistan during a chat in Kabul with a group from Pakistan.

The situation is very fluid in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s remaining in the corner is not a good option. Islamabad needs to understand the emerging scenario where both the Afghans and, to a large extent, the international community, are suffering from acute war fatigue coupled with increasing anger against Islamabad.

Afghans are searching for partners in the region to reduce economic dependency on Pakistan; the international community is looking for alternatives to safeguard its interests without Pakistan.

Pakistan’s wait-and-see policy needs to be changed with a neutral but proactive Afghanistan policy; otherwise, it is going to find itself facing hostility.

The writer is a journalist focusing on Pak-Afghan issues.

hasan.khyber@gmail.com