A troublemaker that causes its neighbours harm, a country being attacked by monsters of its own creation: this is how the world sees Pakistan. Yes, there are moments of unreserved sympathy for the country and the suffering of its people — after the Army Public School attack in Peshawar, after the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park blast in Lahore — but these are more often than not overtaken by news that suggests that Pakistan is scheming and double-dealing, harbouring terrorists that attack its neighbours and endanger the Western world. The sympathy gives way to anger, bewilderment, and the sense that you reap what you sow.
Of course, Pakistan disagrees. It sees itself as a victim — of the jihadists created to fight America’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, of American abandonment in the 1990s, of the jihadist blowback in allying with America post-2001, of its painful birth, of Indian aggression and connivance. It irks Pakistan that the world defines it in terms of terror. Why, Pakistanis ask, doesn’t the world notice any of Pakistan’s positives — the gleaming new buildings in its largest cities, its metrobuses and highways — the way it obsesses over shining India? To these folks, it seems that the only Pakistani heroes the world honours are the ones their country damages, like Malala.
Who’s right? We’ll get back to that. Let’s talk about Mullah Mansoor of the Afghan Taliban — responsible for the uptick in attacks in Afghanistan over the past year and for the deaths of many Afghans — targeted by that American drone strike while being driven along a road in Balochistan. Pakistan’s cries about sovereignty are moot. There is only one takeaway: that Pakistan’s repeated denials about housing the Afghan Taliban were lies. We knew that all along. Still, the confirmation is embarrassing. It’s Osama in Abbottabad, redux. It justifies what the world thinks about Pakistan.
Why does Pakistan do it? It defies rational comprehension. I know the official line, the strategic depth argument: Pakistan fears Indian influence in Afghanistan and encirclement by India, so it maintains connections to the Taliban in Afghanistan. But really, how much sense does that make? Is influence in Afghanistan worth more than Pakistan’s standing in the world? Is it worth more than the investment and tourism and thus income we forgo for being losers in the forum of world opinion? Is it worth more than Pakistan’s security (and the adverse economic effects of poor security)? Thinking this way is not naive, it is realistic.
Because the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, while distinct groups, are connected. Terrorists of all stripes feed off each other, even those with different goals — but these two groups share the same ideologies. You cannot fight one while holding the other’s hand. The havoc the Afghan Taliban wreaks not only affects Kabul and Afghans, it emboldens the Pakistani Taliban to pursue the same at home. Seeing the Afghan Taliban gain power next door would surely boost the Taliban currently on their knees in Waziristan.
Who gave the thumbs-up to Pakistan to continue to cultivate ties with the Afghan Taliban? Not our public, which deeply dislikes the group. Only 12 per cent of respondents surveyed by Pew in 2013 had a favourable view of the Afghan Taliban; 47 per cent had an unfavourable view (42 per cent did not respond). But public opinion informs policy in the best democracies: it is not to be expected in Pakistan where historically defence and security policies have not been in the hands of its elected leaders.
Reading all this, some people will circle around, and protest anew about victimhood and betrayal and RAW and geopolitics and America, and say that that imbroglio justifies everything. But the 1980s are over. Pakistan can make a choice now, and it is a clear one: drop all militants. That goal from the National Action Plan, we now know for sure, is half untouched.
So cut ties with the Afghan Taliban. Not for blind idealism, but for pragmatism. These ties have enormous negative consequences that span both security and economics, and extend to world opinion. And when the world starts thinking a little more highly of Pakistan, the country may just start feeling a little less insecure about itself relative to India. It’s a win-win, if you ask me.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2016.