Regarding Dr Hoodbhoy’s article “What Pakistan needs to do in Afghanistan”, published in this newspaper on March 18, while it is hard to argue with the fact that strategic depth was a failed strategy, it is also important to understand the antecedents of that strategy, because without such an understanding any analysis, however well-meaning, is ultimately superficial.
Hoodbhoy is correct when he says that Afghan president Daud Khan prioritised the Pashtunistan issue in his dealing with Pakistan, leading to a pushback by the Pakistani government. However, it should also be noted that Daud did not create the Pashtunistan bogeyman, but was in fact only one of its most vocal proponents. Afghanistan was the only country to oppose Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations in 1947, using the argument that the newly created state was formed partly from Afghan-claimed territories. Two years later, the Afghan Loya Jirga declared that they did not recognise the Durand line and supported the Pashtun’s right of self-determination, effectively opening the way for subsequent territorial claims and cross-border infiltration. Tensions came to a head when King Zahir Shah made a famous anti-Pakistan speech in 1950, coupled with a renewed propaganda campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Daud’s contribution to souring Pak-Afghan relations is considerable, as he is the person who in 1962 actually sent Afghan troops across the border in Pakistan, precipitating a crisis that led to his sacking by Zahir Shah. A decade later, Daud having removed Zahir Shah, instigated a proxy war in Pakistan. In response to Daud’s interference, Pakistan began to shelter and support the more Islamically-inclined Afghans. These included Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhannudin Rabbani. This then is the historical soup in which the bacterium that would eventually evolve into the policy of ‘strategic depth’ first germinated. It was a policy that initially aimed not so much at providing space against India, but at ensuring that any Afghan government would be, if not friendly, then at least not openly hostile. That an essentially pragmatic strategy later gave way to a militarist and evangelical fantasy is regrettable, but we need to realise that in this regional game, Pakistan has been as much sinned against as sinner.
One reason for Pakistan’s early support for the Taliban was that they promised to provide just such a ‘friendly’ regime, along with the stability necessary to realise the long-dreamed of Central Asian connection. The policy was thus not a purely military one, but also had an economic dimension. I personally disagree with the commonly held perception that Pakistan ‘created’ the Taliban, and instead feel that we simply took advantage of a historical opportunity to have an allied force in Afghanistan and then continued a policy of aid and support in the hopes of having a ‘friendly’ Afghanistan. This is verified by none other than Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who claims that the movement predates General Naseerullah Babar. The policy delivered in part. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was friendlier to Pakistan than ever before, but the negative fallout was also considerable. The Taliban are not, and never were, puppets on a Pakistani string. Nor would a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan be in Pakistan’s interests.
Certainly, our approach to Afghanistan needs to focus more on ‘soft’ power but that cannot be our only focus, just as we cannot cling solely to the chimera of a military solution. If Pakistan were to act against the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, regardless of stretched capacities and the inevitable backlash, there is no guarantee that other states will also abandon their designs and favoured proxies. Nor is there any guarantee that Afghan leaders will not themselves seek out such alliances in order to boost their own coffers and status. Even a basic understanding of how the world works tells us that we will never have such guarantees. To thus denude ourselves of such ‘assets’, however unpalatable we may find them, in the absence of a firm and verifiable commitment from the international community is naïve, and naivety cannot be a hallmark of either foreign policy or analysis.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2012.
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