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Afghanistan still needs to prove that it is capable enough to choose its strategic partners and at the same time not be harmful to its neighbours. Just as Pakistan is free to choose its friends and enemies, Afghanistan too should have the right and opportunity to do so
Recently, the Jinnah Institute and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) launched their joint research called ‘Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite’, which discusses the viewpoints of Pakistani foreign policy shapers around Afghan matters. One should appreciate the initiative because unless and until Afghanistan and Pakistan resolve their challenges in non-military and non-ISI ways, the people of both countries will continue suffering at the hands of extremism and insurgency bred by the flawed political and military structures.
Undoubtedly, the report and the process that it has entailed in gathering the viewpoints and perspectives from a handpicked foreign policy elite keeps Pakistan’s national interest supreme over all other concerns while analysing the current processes in Afghanistan. Moreover, for more credibility, there was a strong need for a counter-balance and some level of Afghan experts’ inputs, who could have also brought the focus on what the perceptions are about Pakistan amongst the Afghan elite and the Afghan people. It seems that for the Pakistani foreign policy elite, the whole perspective revolves around the 2014 deadline, which takes precedence over the complicated dynamics of the region, while the realities on the ground are telling a different tale. The year 2014 might be a deadline for an endgame for the US and NATO in Afghanistan, but not the endgame of conflict in the AfPak region.
As an Afghan reader, I am not convinced that the foreign policy experts, at least those interviewed for this report, were honest enough in tracing the root causes of mistrust and instability in the region, which is: the continued struggle of the Pakistani intelligence and military to create and recreate insurgency for Afghanistan as a matter of Pakistan’s self-defence and as a mechanism of deterrence.
Creation and re-creation of insurgency, terror and fighters for Afghanistan by the Pakistani intelligence, especially the ISI, is the major factor that defines the AfPak relationship, politics and public diplomacy. While Pakistani foreign policy experts call this relationship “interference and non-neutrality”, for an Afghan who witnesses Pakistani nationals blowing themselves up in Afghan cities and taking Afghan lives, it is a matter of invasion and regional terrorism that eventually calls for an Afghan resistance against it.
For the young Afghans, especially those with exposure to the media and who live in urban settings, this ISI-led campaign is more of an enemy than any other force in the world. Similar are the sentiments of the Afghan parents who see their madrassa-going children ready to blow themselves up in Afghanistan and being captured by the Afghan intelligence; they too blame the ISI. Vice versa, the youth on the other side of the border are indoctrinated with the belief that there is a foreign invasion of Afghanistan and to fulfil their religious duty, they have to do jihad inside Afghanistan by blowing themselves up and taking Afghan and coalition members’ lives. This generation of hatred-breeders are going to be very dangerous for the region and will eventually lead both countries into another regional conflict or war, an issue that has not received any attention yet.
I also understand that the Afghan government lacks a proper regional diplomacy, with Pakistan in particular. Considering the history of the complicated relationship between the two countries, the Afghan government should have already come up with a cohesive plan on how to get into a more mutually beneficial and non-threatening relationship with Pakistan through trade, transit routes, water, cultural and linguistic exchange programmes and cooperation. Afghanistan still needs to prove that it is capable enough to choose its strategic partners and at the same time not be harmful to its neighbours. Just as Pakistan is free to choose its friends and enemies, Afghanistan too should have the right and opportunity to do so, however with a clear and transparent line of engagement with its friends that are a matter of concern for Pakistan and the region.
However, many of us Afghans continue to wonder why the Pakistani establishment and intelligence weighs Afghanistan either through the lens of India or the US. Why does the Pakistani government not accept Afghanistan as a sovereign, independent neighbour in itself? Why can Afghanistan not leverage its relationship with India, the US or any other country for its own national interest just as Pakistan takes stock from its relations with China, Saudi Arabia and other countries?
Therefore, it is critical for the people, intellectuals, media, civil society and other non-government entities of both countries to come up with honest, critical but constructive ways of people-to-people engagement and dialogue. As an Afghan who grew up in Pakistan (I am grateful for its people’s support), I believe we need to address the growing mistrust between the two nations if this conflict has to end. We need to move beyond the blame game. The people of the two countries will only come together with a vision for a better future if the miseries of their past are addressed and recognised.
Such a people-to-people platform for dialogue and interaction will become a point of pressure on both governments to change their foreign policy towards each other and move beyond the blame game. While the Pakistani foreign policy experts accept to an extent that the ‘strategic depth’ approach is still an important indicator of success for Pakistan’s foreign policy, we need advocates from both the countries to bring about a change of this approach. In an era of open borders, we do not need intelligence agencies and the military defining our regional identities.
Though late, the only solution seems to be that the two countries start taking each other seriously and honestly begin a constructive dialogue for regional diplomacy by putting forward their younger generation diplomats and technocrats, without any third party initially. Such a regional diplomacy dialogue can best be complemented with a people-to-people platform to redefine the relationship of the two nations. Otherwise, Afghanistan should finally approach the UN Security Council for a possible solution or intervention. Hence, no deadline will play any endgame for Afghanistan and the region will remain in conflict if the approaches and plans being instigated by Pakistan’s security establishment are not changed and averted. Perhaps, the end of these games for Afghanistan can be the beginning of an endgame for the AfPak conflict.
The writer is an Afghan civil society activist