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How Pakistan can win in Afghanistan

When I speak to foreigners, I am pretty clear about what they need to hear. Pakistan has legitimate concerns about Afghanistan, and its choices will always be informed by those concerns.

Pakistan has paid the price for Afghanistan dearly. Pre-Soviet invasion Afghanistan provided sanctuary to separatists and anti-national forces. Soviet invasion Afghanistan produced five million refugees that Pakistan took in – not to mention a heroin problem, and the normalisation of AK-47s as accessories. Post-Soviet invasion Afghanistan produced a civil war, which ended when the Taliban took over that country. Post-Taliban Afghanistan produced a war in Pakistan and the dramatic fall in Pakistan’s prestige around the world, as every stupid Nato/Isaf decision was underwritten with a swift explanation: it’s Pakistan’s fault. This is a perfectly reasonable set of facts that Pakistanis should deploy when trying to explain how Pakistan ended up as being part of the American conversation about Afghanistan.

But here at home, we don’t need to dig up a lot of history to take a more reflective and sober view of why Donald Trump took a battle axe to Pakistan in his speech about America’s Afghanistan policy. The question for us here at home should not be whether Pakistan should roll over and do whatever America, or India, or even Afghanistan wants. Of course, it shouldn’t. The question should be how Pakistan can come out of this with a win.

As things stand, it is safe to say Pakistan is not winning. Afghanistan is not only openly hostile, but it is also a staging ground for the TTP and a safe haven for separatists. Afghans blame Pakistan for their miseries. They embrace India at every opportunity. The Afghan diaspora in the West is possibly more active than the Indian one in taking every opportunity available to paint Pakistan as a regional and global villain. To top it all off, millions of Afghans continue to live in Pakistan, as refugees. All Pakistan has to show for it are gleeful young Afghans retweeting the vilest commentary about Pakistan. And now, this negativity has morphed from being merely something Amrullah Saleh and a few imbalanced Afghan mercenaries used to employ to the official talking points of the president of the United States.

The cherry on top has been the Pakistani response to Trump’s speech.

First, the Difa-e-Pakistan Council conducted a press briefing. That those men are allowed to operate as faux representative of the national security establishment is bad enough, but that they are swifter in responding to Trump than Khawaja Asif, the ISPR, Shahbaz Sharif and the National Security Committee is a testament to just how archaic and incompetent the security and foreign policy bureaucracy really is.

Second, the decisions made since Trump’s speech reflect panic and desperation. Khawaja Asif’s already scheduled trip to the US was postponed after the speech and a series of trips to Beijing and Moscow was hurriedly arranged – as if the world needs convincing that China and Russia have both strategic and tactical interests in embracing Pakistan even harder than they have in recent years. Later, Islamabad requested that Alice Wells and Lisa Curtis postpone their Pakistan visit – ostensibly yet another demonstration of how angry we all are at Trump’s brazen antagonism.

The problem is that we have locked out the Americans before. After the Salala attack in November 2011, Pakistan shut off the ground lines of communication (GLOC) for US troops, shut down operations of US drone bases in Pakistan, and generally adopted a ‘talk-to-the-hand’ approach to the US. In July 2013, the GLOCs were re-opened, following an apology for Salala by Hillary Clinton. It has been almost six years since that took place. A lot has changed in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Washington DC – but the way Americans talk about Pakistan has not. Trump has only reiterated what the Americans have been saying all along.

Third and perhaps most telling about the Pakistani reaction to the Trump speech has been the complete absence at all fora of any reflection – beyond the obvious conspiracy theories – about why Pakistan is facing this kind of a situation with the Americans in the first place. The brazenness with which the LeT/JuD/FIF is being mainstreamed into politics through the NA-120 by-election is something out of the twilight zone. Unless you live in a cocoon of sycophants and buffoons that constantly reinforce the brilliance of Pakistan’s strategic calculus.

The very image of Samiul Haq of Akora Khattak, immediately after the Trump speech was nothing if not a brazen signal to all that care to listen that Pakistan will not abandon the Haqqani Network. This may well be a choice forced upon Pakistan. Delicious as it is, Pakistani Kool Aid or Rooh Afza should always be on tap. But it should certainly strike us as odd that there is absolutely not even a sliver of a discussion about what options, other than the Haqqani Network, are available to Pakistan in pursuit of its legitimate strategic and security interests in Pakistan.

The corollary to all this tends to be a lamentation of our civil-military disequilibrium. It’s always Pindi, Pindi, Pindi. Aabpara, Aabpara, Aabpara. But this narrative is dry and leaves one deeply dissatisfied. When civilians are as incompetent, myopic and self-absorbed as they are (which is to say, a tad more than the khakis), how exactly do we expect the battle for civilian supremacy to go? In the throes of a foreign policy crisis, the principal preoccupations have been the NA-120 by-election, John Lennon’s greatest hit, and yet another not guilty verdict for Asif Ali Zardari. Does the military enjoy an unmolested run of foreign policy and national security decision-making? Sure. Is the self-serving nonsense being trotted out by Nawaz Sharif a credible deterrent? Not really.

The Pakistan-US relationship is comatose. The only kiss of life possible is one that involves an American rejection of unchallenged Indian hegemony in South & Central Asia. Uncle Sam does not seem particularly likely to oblige. Pakistanis need not fear this – but we must understand the future we are signing up to.

Without bold, hardworking and intelligent political leadership that can checkmate the sometimes not-so-brilliant instincts of the military – we are doomed to repeating the cycle we are in now with the US. Sooner or later, there will be a version of the Haqqanis, or the LeT, or the JuM that will make China a target. The Chinese will never gesticulate as hyperactively as the Americans do: “do more, do more, do more!” But the Chinese (or the Russians) will also never have the same strategic calculus as Pakistan. Eventually, there will be a disparity between us and our new friends. Like there has been between us and our old friends.

Foreign policy, as Afiya Zia once tried to explain to me, is “Pakistan’s intended behaviour with other countries and the rules of engagement that other countries have to follow in return”. The reason Pakistan must suffer the indignity of being spoken about the way Trump did is the foundational miscalculation – either by design or by default – in Pakistan’s intended behaviour with Afghanistan.

There is no reason to believe that Afghanistan cannot be convinced (or coerced) to place Pakistan’s concerns above its India-fuelled appetite for destruction. The question is how Pakistan chooses to persuade Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network is a poor choice of instrument. It has cost Pakistan dearly, and it will cost Pakistan even more dearly. If the Haqqanis are the binary on which Pakistan’s fortunes in the region turn, our problems are much larger than Trump’s speech. It is time to stop making a mockery of ourselves. It is time to make better choices in Afghanistan. Winning choices.


The writer is an analyst and commentator.


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