There are hopeful factors in Afghanistan’s near future, but a discussion of how the years will unfold after the 2014 US troop withdrawal cannot begin without understanding Pakistan’s overriding interference. On April 16, 2011, the entire Pakistani military and political leadership had arrived in Kabul. The delegation included, in order of their importance, Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen Shuja Pasha, Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, interior minister Rehman Malik, prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, junior foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, and others. The only top leader left in Pakistan was president Asif Zardari.
Four days later, Roznama Jasarat on April 20 carried a headline: “(Afghanistan told it) will have to follow our strategy, Pakistan’s stern message to Afghanistan.” It noted: “Gilani delivered a stern message from Pakistan to the Karzai government saying that Afghanistan will have to consult with Pakistan regarding the number and training of its security forces. Development projects in the country should be transparent; the future governments in Afghanistan will have to follow the Pakistani strategy; Pakistanis should be recruited in (Afghan) government institutions; and Afghanistan will inform Pakistan about any pact signed with the Western allies.”
Pakistani analysts routinely curse India’s developmental role in Afghanistan, but these demands revealed a Pakistani mindset aimed at total colonisation of Afghanistan. For a lay reader, it might shock to know that Pakistan should ask for Pakistani nationals to be recruited into Afghan institutions, but during the Taliban rule, Pakistani citizens were indeed appointed to Afghan government positions. During the Kabul talks, it was also agreed to set up a two-tier joint commission, allowing the Pakistani intelligence to embed into Kabul’s policy making. The News on April 17, 2011, reported, “The chief executives of both countries, as well as army chiefs, heads of intelligence agencies, and foreign and interior ministers will comprise the first tier of the commission...” The Roznama Ummat of April 20 summed up in a frontpage headline: “Afghanistan embraces Pakistan’s security establishment.” Later evidence suggests Hamid Karzai was smarter than them.
Now, it can be said that Nawaz Sharif is a democrat and doesn’t intend to colonise Afghanistan. It can be argued back that Asif Zardari too was a sincere democrat, but his government surrendered before the ISI. For now, Sharif isn’t shaping Pakistani foreign policy. The attacks on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad and killing of Indian soldiers denote one thing: the ISI retains the command.
On August 17, BBC Urdu reported a sudden rise in Pakistani beggars arriving in Kabul, with passports and visas! The failure of the Doha talks with the Taliban emanated from suspicions, among other reasons, that the ISI had convinced the United States to divide Afghanistan. Karzai’s August 26 visit to Islamabad was merely a goodwill gesture. Before and after 9/11, Pakistan has defied several UN Security Council resolutions by not ceasing to host and aid Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Currently, all players are awaiting the results of the April 5, 2014, Afghan presidential polls and the withdrawal of US troops.
Here is a primer on Pakistan’s Afghan policy: during the 1980s, the ISI and the US supported the mujahideen against the Soviets; during the 1990s, Pakistan recognised the Taliban regime in Kabul; during the 2000s, Pakistan’s Afghan policy was in disarray after the Taliban were removed from power following 9/11; from early 2006, the ISI used the Taliban to explode improvised explosive devices, causing a sharp rise in American casualties every year. In coming years, ISI-backed jihadi organisations will persist at destabilising Afghanistan. However, a point often neglected in the understanding of why the post-Soviet governments fell in Kabul is this: their main backer, the USSR, broke up.
There are positive achievements for Afghanistan. First, this time there is no USSR to break up. The US will likely keep 6,000-9,000 troops past 2014, along with 5,000 NATO soldiers. The US-led international community, and allies like India, will engage with Kabul, strengthening the Afghan state. Iran, too, will not like the Taliban’s return to power, though its support to Afghan Shia groups could force Saudis to offer counter support to Sunni jihadis. Second, over the past half a century, elections have emerged as turning points, irreversibly shaping a nation’s destiny positively. The Afghan presidential election will yield a new leader, instilling new confidence among Afghans.
In today’s information age, this is important for the cohesiveness of the Afghan state. The Taliban are willing to talk, a testimony to this real change. Third, the biggest achievement is a 350,000-strong Afghan army that is fighting back against the Taliban. Recently, Afghan troops have responded superbly to terror attacks; they are in operational lead throughout the country, with American troops in supporting role. Fourth, corruption and joblessness are big threats for Afghanistan. But there are achievements: 10 million children go to schools, most of them girls, from 900,000 in 2001. Over 4,000 schools were set up since 2001. Of 27 million Afghans, 20 million have mobile phones; 80 per cent Afghan women use mobiles. There are 150 radio stations and 50 TV channels. These factors enforce the nation’s overall unity.
Wars end differently: the 1953 Korean war ended in a stalemate and remains a threat half a century later; the 1971 war ended in a decisive victory, creating Bangladesh; the 1990 Iraq war didn’t yield an outcome, causing a delayed military action in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein; three Indo-Pak wars didn’t resolve anything.
The truth: the Afghan war will not end in 2014. The Taliban will survive as a terror network. A Baghdad-like scenario is unfolding in Afghanistan, marked by jailbreaks, assassinations and frequent bombings, which will challenge Afghanistan’s stability. The Taliban-ISI alliance will give birth to newer jihadi groups. Over the next decade if the ISI doesn’t change its course, Pakistan will look like Afghanistan of the 1980s, bringing the threat nearer to India’s borders.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC.