As part of the organising committee for the International Relations Society at Oxford, we had former commander of International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, come over recently for a lecture.
McChrystal started off his spiel with differing perceptions of the conflict in Afghanistan — the US perspective of bringing freedom to the Afghans, and the Afghan perspective of the US being yet another occupying force, emphasising it matters whose shoes one is wearing. He then brought Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai into the equation and revealed that Karzai’s biggest demand from the Americans was to set up American enterprises in Afghanistan, as he felt that only business could guarantee a long-term commitment from the Americans in Afghanistan.
Soon after this the topic changed to what everyone had come to hear about — the general’s perspective on the Bin Laden episode. Instead of bashing Pakistan, McChrystal showed his mettle and worth — he argued that the US has made a lot of mistakes with Pakistan, and Pakistan has also made an equal number of mistakes, and there is no point in sticking to these mistakes. He continued that Bin Laden is dead and that should be the end of the story. He rationally argued that the only way out is to look forward to the future, and build up on a solid and trustworthy partnership that is beneficial for both states.
To my surprise, the general also brought up the issue of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty and how that had been violated in the Bin Laden mission. The general even went on to say that the news of Bin Laden’s death was not something that should be celebrated, as there is no happiness and satisfaction in the loss of human life.
Someone in the audience asked the general about the role of China and McChrystal was of the view that Chinese involvement in Afghanistan was not more than mere suckling away of precious Afghan natural resources. The general was equally wary of China’s relations with Pakistan, asserting that in the long term they were not beneficial for Pakistan. This was the only toe of US foreign policy that the general asserted; apart from that his assessment was all logical and humane.
After the speech, I got to meet McChrystal and instead of attacking Pakistan in any way, he agreed that Pakistan had suffered more than any other state, and said that America recognised all these sacrifices. The future, he believed, was one where we all worked in mutual support and benefit for everyone.
At the end of the meeting, I felt both happy and sad. Happy, because the Americans appreciate the sacrifices and pains ordinary Pakistanis have undertaken, and the resentment felt by Pakistanis when their territorial integrity is shattered. And sad, because the general was not in the command seat any more. I only hope and pray that the current leadership in place of McChrystal shares the same perspectives and mindset. Peace in the region may not be such an elusive oasis anymore.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2011.