Javid Husain

The flawed Afghan policy that the US pursued in the past was the result of unrealistic assumptions and an exaggerated view of its power. When the US invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, it loomed large like a colossus on the global scene. The ease with which the US was able to decimate Al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban government with the support of the Northern Alliance confirmed its belief in the invincibility of its military power. The exuberance of easy victory also led Washington to expand its objectives in Afghanistan. Instead of concentrating on defeating Al-Qaeda, it decided to pursue the elusive goal of nation-building in Afghanistan in Washington’s lights and not necessarily as desired by the Afghan people.

Over the years, the ground realities have turned to the disadvantage of the US because of the enormous cost in blood and treasure of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the relative decline of its economic power, the tenacity and resilience of the Taliban, and the war weariness of the American public. The goal of nation building in Afghanistan was set by the US in woeful ignorance of its cultural traditions and history. Culturally speaking, the Afghan society is extremely conservative. To impose on it the Western values was likely to lead to resentment at the grass roots level, as proved to be the case. Historically, the Afghans have resisted foreign occupation, as shown by the experience of the British and the Soviet Union. The odds were, therefore, against the success of the American experiment. Unfortunately, for the US, the vehicle that it chose for realising its objectives in Afghanistan was a Northern Alliance-dominated government from which the majority of the Pashtuns constituting almost half of the Afghan population was alienated. The propping up of such a government betrayed a lack of understanding of the tribal and ethnic character of the Afghan society. In the Afghan society, the first loyalty of a person is to his tribe, followed by that to the ethnic community to which he belongs. It was, therefore, just a matter of time before the Pashtuns would rise against the government established in Kabul by the US.

The Taliban, who were themselves mostly Pashtuns, took full advantage of the Pashtun discontent turning it into a full-fledged revolt against the Karzai government. The relative neglect of Afghanistan by the US during the initial few years after 2001 because of the invasion of Iraq provided the Taliban with the political and military space to regroup and launch the struggle against the foreign occupation, as they saw the US-led forces in Afghanistan and against the Karzai government, which was seen by them as Washington’s lackey. It was inevitable that sooner or later the Pashtuns in Pakistan’s tribal areas because of their tribal and ethnic links would be drawn into the conflict raging in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the foreign forces. The US response has been primarily to rely on the brute use of force to suppress the Taliban/Pashtun revolt and put enormous pressure on Pakistan to stop cross-border support by the Pashtuns in our tribal areas to their brethren in Afghanistan, instead of recognising and correcting the flaws in its Afghanistan policy. The willingness of the Pakistan government to oblige the Americans turned the Taliban fury against it, destabilising, in the process, not only our tribal areas, but also the rest of the country through acts of terrorism. For currying favour with the Americans, Pakistan paid a heavy price in the form of the loss of lives of more than 30,000 civilians and 5,000 security personnel, besides an enormous damage to its economy running into tens of billions of dollars.

This apparently has not been enough for the American policymakers, especially its generals, who keep on asking Pakistan to do more. The latest example of this pressure is the statement by CIA Director David Petraeus before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 31 that Pakistan was not putting sufficient pressure on the Afghan Taliban. A recently leaked Nato report separately claims that Pakistan’s ISI has been secretly aiding Afghanistan’s Taliban. At the academic level, there are scholars like Professor Stephen D. Krasner, who recommends in the January-February 2012 issue of the prestigious journal, Foreign Affairs that America should “make credible threats to retaliate if Pakistan does not comply with the US demands and offer rewards only in return for cooperative actions taken.” This relentless pressure amounts to asking Pakistan to pull the Western chestnuts out of fire, even at the cost of its internal stability, security and economic health just because Washington has offered a few crumbs to Islamabad. Tragically, that is precisely what our political and military leadership had been doing in the past till the Americans intoxicated by their military power attacked the Pakistani checkpost in November last forcing Pakistan to review its relationship with the US.

Time has come for Pakistan to tell the US in categorical terms that while it would continue to support fully the latter’s effort to defeat Al-Qaeda, it cannot be a party to any US attempt to impose a government of its choice on the Afghan people. The solution of the internal armed conflict in Afghanistan lies not in military action against the Afghan Taliban, but rather in a negotiated settlement with the full involvement of the various Afghan parties and groups for the establishment of a government, which enjoys broad-based support of its people. It is high time that the American policymakers, instead of making baseless allegations against Pakistan, should remove the cobwebs in their thinking and concentrate on the initiation of a dialogue among the various Afghan parties, including the Taliban, the Karzai government, the Northern Alliance and others for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan. They must accordingly shift their focus from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism to defeat Al-Qaeda and leave the destiny of Afghanistan to the Afghans.

It appears from the latest reports about the secret contacts between the US and the Taliban representatives that finally Washington may be inching towards the route of negotiations for a settlement in Afghanistan. The Taliban decision to open an office in Qatar indicates that the ground is being prepared for such negotiations. It is contradictory on the part of Washington that while the US is getting ready for negotiations with the Taliban, it expects Pakistan to escalate military pressure on them even at the risk of aggravating its domestic instability. The US decision to terminate the combat role of its forces in Afghanistan in the second half of 2013, announced by the US Defence Secretary a few days ago, would pave the way for ending its military occupation of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as decided earlier. It may also help in overcoming the misgivings of the Taliban, who insist on the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

These American moves are in the right direction and should be encouraged by Pakistan. We should extend our cooperation and help in the initiation of talks in the firm belief that only a negotiated settlement can restore durable peace in Afghanistan. In so doing, we should not repeat our policy blunders of 1990s when we extended our support to an exclusively Taliban government in Afghanistan. We must coordinate our Afghan policy with Iran to avoid those mistakes. While the Afghans must play the central role in the peace process, the tribal and ethnic realities militate against an exclusive government of either the Taliban or the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance must recognise this reality.

The writer is a retired ambassador.

Email: javid.husain@gamil.com