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AfPak policy a mistake

November 17, 2009

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PAKISTAN is not Afghanistan. By coupling the two countries together and calling it 'AfPak', the United States' intention was to make policymaking simpler. It may have had the opposite effect.

The idea was that by lumping Afghanistan and Pakistan into one analytical framework, Washington and its allies would be able to focus on one geographic entity and would be able to use the same strategy to counter the threat posed to the West by the rise of Islamic extremism.

Looking at the threat from the prism of 9/11, Washington and other western capitals worried about the launch of another attack perhaps even more lethal than that of Sept 11, 2001. But there are a number of flaws in the unfolding strategy aimed at the AfPak region.

The first, of course, is the enormous difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan was not colonised. This meant that it did not develop what the West knows as the 'state'. It did not develop a strong central authority that could manage disparate regions within the country and the people that reside in them. There was relative peace when Kabul, ruled mostly by monarchs but most recently by presidents, left local chieftains and warlords alone.

The latter allowed a small portion of the resources collected from the people over whom they ruled to go to Kabul to provide the central authority some funds to pay for its basic needs — the running of the king's or the president's palaces, funding of a small federal bureaucracy, and the upkeep of a small army. Until the Cold War contestants developed some interest in the country, the few urban centres — Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif — were poorly connected.

The Afghans were not a mobile people. They mostly stayed in their villages and insularity became their defining characteristic. All this changed when the US built all-weather modern highways in the south and the Soviet Union followed with roads in the north. The state made little investment in human development and not much in anything else. Afghanistan, consequently, was one of the most backward societies when the Soviet Union sent its troops in 1979 in an attempt to create a vassal state.

Moscow's aging leadership — once again — got the wrong message from history. The Soviet leaders believed that what had worked in other Muslim states in Central Asia could also work in Afghanistan. But Moscow did not succeed and a loosely knit alliance of warlords, aided by the US and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan providing essentially logistical support, was able to expel them from the country.

Afghanistan would have reverted to its traditional but stable state had the Taliban administration in Kabul not granted sanctuary to Al Qaeda. That led to a chain of events that included the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the American counter-attack. In the post-Soviet era the country would have been carved into a number of fiefdoms each controlled by the Mujahideen warlords who had collaborated with the West to push the Soviets out. That is not the way the country went. Led by the US, the West attempted to force a system of government and economic management that is totally foreign to Afghanistan.

Thirty years of instability and a stagnating economy have left the country enormously polarised. A small class of enormously rich people, drawing income and wealth from corruption and the production of poppies and the associated drug trade, are attempting to establish their control with the help of private armies — the lashkars — that are loyal only to them.

They don't have an interest in creating an Afghan state that would work for bringing economic development or improving the welfare of the common man. Women in particular remain suppressed. The few that have benefited from some openings in the system that accompanied the overthrow of the Taliban regime once again fear for their lives and their social status.

But Pakistan is different. When it emerged as an independent state in 1947 it already had a functioning state with functioning institutions put in place during the long British rule. Although there is not much resemblance between the Pakistan of today and the one at the time of independence, it has the makings of a modern state. Two things set it apart from Afghanistan it has a large, well-organised and disciplined military with 650,000 men and women in uniform and a large and growing middle class.

The latter is particularly important for Pakistan's economic and political future. Numbering about 50 to 60 million and with per capita income two-and-a-half times the national average of $1,000, it has a great deal at stake in the direction the country takes. This class has already shown its political muscle in support of the judiciary. An impressive campaign that lasted for two years forced former president Pervez Musharraf out of office and also persuaded Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate the judges fired by his predecessor from the provincial high courts and the Supreme Court. The middle class also has a strong presence in the armed forces.

It appears that the campaign the army has launched in the hills of South Waziristan has the full backing of the powerful middle class. It has now recognised that the war being fought in that inhospitable territory is their war; it is not a proxy war being waged on behalf of the US. This suggests that the West needs to work with this class of people and help it gain a firmer footing in Pakistan's fertile economic but troubled political soil.

Treating Pakistan in the context of an AfPak strategy would be a colossal mistake. The West under the leadership of President Barack Obama needs two different strategies, one for Pakistan and the other for Afghanistan.