Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite and Afghanistan – Old Wine in New BottleProf. Ijaz Khan
Pakistan Foreign Policy elite in a rather supposedly quite subtle manner first argue that USA must not abandon Afghanistan. They are repeating continuously what was said after 9/11, to separate Taliban (good Taliban/ Pashtuns understood as Taliban) and Alqaeda. The Americans are being offered the ouster of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan in return for a major say/control in Afghanistan through its demands for a friendly government/ broader government/ representative of all ethnic groups/ representing good Taliban etc and from the ideal of total ouster of India from Afghanistan to limiting it to economic development only.They also want the right to monitor all Indian activities in Afghanistan and be informed of it. This elite now avoids rather criticizes the use of the term ‘Strategic Depth’. However, they continue to equate Taliban with Pashtuns, something evident from the argument that Taliban must be given representation in an Afghan arrangement to avoid negative reaction from Pashtuns on this side of the Durand Line. They also want a say in the size of Afghan Army. And yet they claim they are not being hegemonic and they are not supporting the ‘Strategic Depth Policy.
Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan has always been hooked on two bases, India and Durand Line. Pakistani establishment has evolved with a strong sense of security threat perceptions emanating from India. With the psychological baggage of partition and pre partition politics, its centrist post colonial state structure, Pakistani state dominant perception was that India must be countered, unitary identity is a must for survival, Civilians do not understand, are corrupt and inefficient to a level of not being true patriots. Very soon it also learned that religion can be a useful tool of policy, both against domestic democratic dissent and more importantly Foreign / Security Policy. That lesson had been learnt before Afghanistan and before Zia Ul Haq. Quick examples are Al Badar and Al Shams in East Pakistan (1971 – against Bengali Nationalists) and hosting of most of the Afghan Muhahideen leaders in 1973–4. During Zia Ul Haq’s period these religious forces/ extremists graduated from tools of policy to partners in policy making.
The Soviet intervention, resistance to it, and US/Western and Saudi support to it provided Pakistani State with an opportunity and capability to influence the situation in line with its security perceptions. Pakistan’s policy has a certain level of continuity that can be discerned throughout its history. This space is too limited to deal comprehensively with that, so it will only do a summary of this continuity since 1978 – 79. Pakistani policy makers have made adequate tactical and semantic changes and adaptations according to changing regional and international environment; however, a fundamental continuity is clearly visible.
Pakistan policy towards Afghanistan since the resistance to the Soviet Intervention started has been dictated by mainly two policy goals of a) eliminating any Indian influence in Afghanistan b) resolving the Durand Line issue through a policy of propping up religious alternate to the secular Pakhtun nationalist leadership and narrative, and c) since the Soviet (and western also) withdrawal from Afghanistan, to have a determining say in Afghan affairs (variations around the concept of Strategic Depth can be seen throughout).
During the decade of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Pakistan clearly supported groups and channelized all international aid to the resistance to religious groups, ignoring non religious nationalist / secular resistance groups. Even among the religious groups Pakistani establishment made choices. The religious groups were preferred for both the above mentioned considerations.
During the early 1990s, Pakistan continued with the same policy objectives. Pakistan felt more confident as it was left unchecked by the west / US to pursue its goals through the influence it had gained in Afghanistan in the 1980s. First it tried to install Gulbadin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan. But when that failed, it banked on the Taliban in second half of 1990s. The purpose remained the same, deny Indian influence in Afghanistan and undermine secular Pashtun National movement on both sides of the Durand Line. Taliban being ‘traditional Sunni Muslims’ were expected to stop Iranian influence, as well as have no truck with Pan Islamists (or Political Islamists). The last two points made them acceptable to Americans as well.
In fact, initially the Pan Islamists had opposed the Taliban. However, the difference between traditional Islamists and Pan Islamists proved irrelevant. Very soon the traditional or rural/ agrarian religious movement Taliban and the Pan Islamists found common ground. US started distancing itself from Taliban as well. Afghanistan very fast became a safe haven for religious extremist/ terrorist groups from all over the World. Pakistani establishment tried to play the role of a broker between Taliban and Americans much before the 9/11 brought US and Taliban face to face.
Pakistan continued to play that role even after 9/11. After initially announcing all out support to US and allies against Taliban ruled Afghanistan, it continued to separate Taliban from Al Qaeda (or the Pan Islamists/ Political Islamists, their militant section, by then represented by Al Qaeda). First Pakistani establishment tried its best to convince Americans not to use force in Afghanistan. When the US attacked Taliban, Pakistan had to adjust. Ahmad Rashid very appropriately termed that Pakistani policy as ‘Double U Turn’. Pakistan became and is till today both ally of the Americans against Taliban and their protector and considers them, under whatever name, good Taliban, ‘Pashtuns’, moderate Taliban etc, as a must for any peace arrangement in Afghanistan.
Pakistan after 9/11 adjusted its semantics and policy tactics in Afghanistan to the new realities though the broader policy remained and in the opinion of this scribe remains the same. Pakistani state started arguing for a government in Afghanistan which must comprise elements under its influence. It used different terms to describe them like Good Taliban and/ or Pashtun representation. Pakistani commentators also started decrying the increased influence of India. A number of Pakistan’s ‘Foreign Policy Elite’ started repeatedly saying a few things; Indian Consulates (the number they quoted was staggering and false) in Afghanistan are involved in Anti Pakistan activities, Karzai as a ‘Mayor of Kabul’, US is about to leave Afghanistan, Karzai government is actually the government of non Pashtuns, Action against Taliban in Afghanistan has alienated and turned Pashtuns on this side of the Durand Line against Pakistan etc. etc.
Pakistan still wants to dictate the terms for a settlement in Afghanistan. Though couched in more liberal and civil language and faces, it is the same old story. The current phase in Pakistan US relations is part of a process of bargaining. Pakistani Foreign Policy Elite perceives (or wishes it to be so) that US want to simply abandon Afghanistan and that it wants a face saving formula. President Obama and others have made it abundantly clear that this is not the case. There is no end game in Afghanistan and it is not up for spoils. US wants to create conditions in Afghanistan by 2014 that will enable it to end its direct military role, but it has no where announced that it will abandon Afghanistan by 2014 come what may.
Different language fails to hide goals of a policy mainly pursued at least since 1980 which actually is a build up on earlier policy. The aim remains to deny Indian role/influence in Afghanistan, to re write the secular Pashtun national narrative and identity with religious one, and to control Afghanistan. This is what was meant by the use of the term ‘Strategic Depth’ broadly speaking and this is what the policy remains as articulated by Pakistan’s ‘Foreign Policy elite’ without the use of the term.