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Afghanistan closer with mortal enemy of Pakistan

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MateenK View Drop Down
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    Posted: 12-Mar-2017 at 10:46pm

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It must be a very painful time for those at the helm of the state of Pakistan as all of their hopes, aspirations and dreams about relations with Afghanistan have gone up in smoke and their worst nightmares are now harsh facts on the ground. After seven decades on the roller coaster, Pak-Afghan relations are on the drawing board yet again. It appears that the huge tribe of Afghan experts, within and outside the government, only led us astray.

Afghanistan, it appears, has finally crossed the dreaded redline and our western frontier is now a source of bigger trouble than the eastern border. As the encirclement becomes a reality, Pakistan is trying to reframe its relations with its westerly neighbour as a hostile state.

Most Pakistani analysts blame the whole situation on Pakistan’s policies which, in their opinion, have delivered Afghanistan into the hands of our mortal enemy – India. This line of argument is popular with Afghans as well who deny enjoying any agency or control over themselves, blaming everything that has happened in their country on outsiders. Except defeating superpowers of course; that they did all alone. Afghan-Pakistan relations are in fact a tango that has been played by the two states together. Even as both are bleeding, the dance has become even more feverish.

There is a very harsh reality that most Pakistanis find hard to understand. Afghanistan does not see Pakistan as a friend – it never has and, perhaps, it never will. More than the realities of international relations, this fact is rooted in how Afghans define their identity. Ever since Pakistan was created, Afghanistan has defined its identity in opposition to its neighbour. This is not unusual as nations construct identities not only by defining who they are but also by outlining who they are not – or the ‘other’.

Pakistan, interestingly, has long idealised Afghans and Afghanistan. This attitude dates back to the colonial period, when Indian Muslims saw Afghanistan as a free Muslim country with which they had a shared history and blood relations, conveniently forgetting that this relative freedom was granted by the two empires to maintain a buffer and also because there was not much to be gained economically by occupying Afghanistan.

Pakistan had to face a rude shock when Afghanistan opposed the very existence of the newly born Muslim state to its east and became the only country to oppose Pakistan’s membership to the UN. It also refused to accept the Durand Line as an international border though it did not have any case worth contesting at any international forum. While Pakistan remained obsessed with India, Afghanistan felt free to foment separatism, supporting centrifugal movements – both political and violent.

After three decades, Pakistan got a chance to shape Afghanistan in its own image after communists took control of Kabul and Soviet tanks rolled in to support them. There is a broad agreement in Pakistan that Ziaul Haq made a huge blunder by throwing Pakistan headlong into the CIA’s war in Afghanistan.

Afghans, however, do not see it that way. They think that they did a great job by defeating a superpower and adding a new grave to their famed graveyard of the empires. Almost all of the Afghan ruling elite, as well as most leaders of the insurgency, can trace their lineage to the Afghan war. Hamid Karzai, himself a warlord of that period, thanks Pakistan for its support to the mujahideen.

So in the opinion of the Afghan elite, Pakistan turned evil when it ‘foisted the Taliban on the Afghan people’. Most educated Pakistanis, including this columnist, agree that Pakistani support for Taliban was a dark chapter in history. However, it is very hard to deny that the Taliban were a popular social movement in Afghanistan at the time. They emerged spontaneously as many similar movements in the past and their victories needed minimal support from Pakistan. The great mujahideen who had just inflicted a humiliating defeat upon a superpower were themselves humiliated by the madressah students, not because Pakistan supported them but because the people of Afghanistan were fed up with the mujahideen and they saw the Taliban as their only hope.

While the Taliban were the only Afghan government not enjoying good relations with India, they did not prove less troublesome for Pakistan. They provided protection to Pakistani sectarian terrorists and brought the US military to the region by harbouring Osama bin Laden. The hostility the Taliban harboured towards Pakistan is evident from the book written by Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.

The Northern Alliance and other former mujahideen who dominate the Kabul establishment have not forgiven Pakistan for its support to the Taliban. Relations have been further soured due to Pakistan’s support for Taliban after 9/11.

However, by trying to benefit from the Indo-Pak rivalry for their own interests, the Afghan ruling elite have also complicated the regional situation and seriously compromised Afghan national interests. After all, Pakistan hosted 10 percent of its population, kept its 2500-kilometre long border open for Afghan nationals and allowed almost 50,000 Afghans to travel to Pakistan every day to work, study, seek medical treatment and fulfil their other needs. Pakistan had even tolerated an Afghanistan-based smuggling industry worth billions of dollars being maintained in the name of transit trade without insisting on a fair use policy. Think of a country that houses 20 million Pakistanis (10 percent of our population) and extends these kinds of favours.

Some eight years ago, the Kabul government decided to take confrontation with Pakistan to the level of the people. It started harassing Pakistani travellers, even those visiting on valid visas. It became almost impossible for a common Pakistan to have a cup of tea at a cafeteria in the Afghan capital. Afghanistan also barred Pakistanis from visiting Afghanistan without valid documents, while expecting Pakistan to keep its borders open to all Afghans. It has also restricted trade with Pakistan by putting up tariff and non-tariff barriers.

All the good, the bad and the ugly was done with only one aim in mind – to keep India out of Afghanistan. But India has arrived with its spooks, and with the openly stated aim of fomenting trouble in Pakistan.

It is painful to see millions of common Afghans suffering due to the deterioration of relationship between the two states. I have previously argued for the rights of Afghan refugees in this space, but unfortunately nation-states do not show much sympathy to citizens of hostile states. On Pakistan’s border with India, hardly a few hundred people travel on both sides every day, visas are hard to get and every traveller is considered suspect.

While relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have hit rock bottom, we should try to make a distinction between the Afghan government and its people. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have much to gain from good relations with each other. In the short run, however, it will be good if they could resist the temptation to harm each other.

Edited by MateenK - 12-Mar-2017 at 10:48pm
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