Afghanistan Still a Pesky Puzzle for Pakistan

Published: 23rd September 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd September 2015 02:55 AM   |  A+A-

Dale Carnegie minted fame and fortune by simply teaching the Americans, and others, how to win friends. How must the Pakistani policy planners pine, these testing days, they had a Carnegie to guide them how to win friends among the country’s neighbours. Except for China, to its north, Pakistan’s relations with the other three of its neighbours — India, Iran and Afghanistan — are, at best, in a holding pattern. But to the cynics, these relations are in a shambles, especially with India and Afghanistan. With Iran, most pundits concede room for optimism, now that it has turned a corner in its relations with the US, which was suspected to be Pakistan’s arm-twister on relations with Tehran. There’s, after all, a wealth of historical camaraderie between Iran and Pakistan which can always be harked back to, once the spanners thrown in by a third-party are removed.

India is altogether a different kettle of fish for the Pakistani policy gurus, especially those manning the civilian side of policy-making process. They have one hand tied behind their back by the military brass and, as a consequence of it, have restricted room to operate. But most agree that, as of now, it would only take a miracle to get relations with India out of its ruts. They are keeping their fingers crossed, nevertheless.

However, it’s Afghanistan which seems to be testing the nerves of both civil and military policy gurus. They are the ones most anxious to dig into a Carnegie-like magic mantra to move relations with Afghanistan from where they stand today — at ground-zero — and take it to a plain where the jinx could be broken. Afghanistan has tested nerves, raised hackles and tempers, too, among the Pakistani policy pundits and leaders from Day One of its independence. Afghanistan was the only country to oppose Pakistan’s membership of the UN. But that affront was lumped in Pakistan because its military strategists valued Afghanistan for the ‘depth’ it provided them against India — the end-all of their military planning, vi-a-vis their inveterate ‘enemy.’

Relations with Afghanistan remained on a roller-coaster, until that country was invaded and occupied by the then Soviet Union led by the Russians. Their thorny past with a pesky Afghanistan was put on the back burner by the Pakistanis who saw it as their religious obligation to stand firmly behind their oppressed Afghan brethren. More than four million Afghan refugees were given refuge in Pakistan. Not only that, but unlike Iran, which also absorbed more than a million Afghans, the country was thrown open to them, from Peshawar to Karachi. A third of those have made Pakistan their permanent abode. Pakistanis, of all stripes, now rue that ‘ungrateful’ Afghans abused their hospitality by inundating Pakistan with their poisonous guns-and-drugs culture. The Afghan return the gratuitous compliment by blaming Pakistan for god-fathering the Taliban, whose Stone Age rule pulverised their land and hobnobbing with Al-Qaeda invited the wrath of the US — with the scourge still unabated.

The Pakistanis had many axes to grind with Hamid Karzai as long as he was at the helm in Afghanistan. Another ‘ingrate’ Afghan in the Pakistani pundits’ eyes — he had been ensconced in Quetta for years during the Afghan ‘jihad’ — Karzai was lampooned as an Indian ‘agent’ who had given a blank cheque to his Indian ‘mentors’ to do what pleased them while he ruled Afghanistan. A lot of Pakistani hopes for a turn-around in friendship with Afghanistan were pinned on Karzai’s successor, Ashraf Ghani. He, too, initially didn’t disappoint and seemed interested in playing the ball by Pakistani rules. He won the hearts of policy gurus by dropping in on the military chief, General Raheel Sharif, at the GHQ on his maiden visit to Pakistan, last year.

It was unprecedented for a foreign head of state to kowtow to the Pakistani Bonaparte at his seat of power. Ghani, obviously, seemed conscious of where the buck stopped on policy with Afghanistan. But the hunky-dory went out of the window two months ago when Ghani and his cohorts placed responsibility at Pakistan’s door for a terrorist attack in the heart of Kabul that killed dozens. Pakistan, understandably, denied the charge but damage to the budding camaraderie between the two neighbours had been done; it hasn’t recovered, to date. The relationship degenerated into the familiar pattern of tit-for-tat. The blame game reached the nadir on September 18 when more than a dozen armed terrorists tried to breach the security perimeter of Badaber, an Air Force base outside Peshawar. The attackers were all killed but they took a toll of 29 lives, of military personnel and civilians. Badaber had been developed in the late 1950s by the Americans at the height of the Cold War.

The infamous U-2 American spy plane, of Commander Garry Power, brought down by the Russians over their territory had taken off from Badaber. Nikita Khruschev had publicly berated the Pakistani Ambassador in Moscow at a diplomatic reception for involvement in the American ‘crime’ and warned him that he’d drawn a red circle around Peshawar; any repeat of U-2 would wipe Peshawar off the map, he hectored. More than half a century later, the terrorist attack on Badaber has drawn a red circle around Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, with both civilian and military leaders of Pakistan blaming that the Badaber attack was “planned and controlled” from Afghanistan, as was the last December 16 dastardly attack on the Army Public School of Peshawar, that took a toll of more than 140 innocent school children.

Interestingly, the finger hasn’t been pointed at the Afghan government for planning and controlling the terrorist attacks. The Pakistanis accuse non-state actors — the Pakistani Taliban, in this case — being allowed to use Afghan territory for criminal planning and execution. Ashraf Ghani has quickly risen to the task of damage control by publicly assuring Pakistan that Afghanistan, on his watch, wouldn’t allow anyone to sow terror in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif has reciprocated by ordering his minions to share evidence of the crimes’ Afghan provenance with Ghani. Pundits will be keenly watching to see how this latest exercise in fence-mending works out. At best it would be a slow and painstaking grind, given the mistrust on both sides of the Durand Line — which is still the ‘prickly hedge’ between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Demons of the Raj refuse to go away.

The problem is compounded by two factors bedeviling the bilateral relationship. One is the monopoly of the generals in Pakistan on policy with Afghanistan; their focus is fixated on its prime ‘strategic depth.’ The second is Pakistan’s perennial suspicion that India is out to stir trouble. Political pundits, however, still pine for a Carnegie mantra to redress a precarious relationship that would take the Afghan bone out of Pakistan’s craw.

The writer is a former Pakistanidiplomat.


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