A story of transformation

The safety, security and prosperity of Afghanistan means the safety, security and prosperity of Pakistan

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan October 10, 2021
The writer is Dean Social Sciences at Garrison University Lahore and tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

A story is an assembly of facts or an account of past or ongoing events. The current story of both Pakistan and Afghanistan is the story of avoiding international isolation. Now that the regional environment has become permissive, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, why shouldn’t Pakistan and Afghanistan start to write and live their new stories? Who knows this better than the US itself who has written, lived and experienced many of its own stories, some of which have been premised on: containing communism, promoting capitalism, defeating fascism, sustaining liberal internationalism, and creating and generating a global response against terrorism. But what is the new story of Pakistan and Afghanistan?

The story is of the rejuvenation and the transformation of two societies that were deprived of the opportunity to realise their international aspirations due to a prolonged war. The onus to provide this opportunity now falls on the shoulders of the world community led by the US.

To begin a transformation, you need to be clear on what you stand for and stand against. Our story of transformation could have begun much earlier had the US not embroiled and pushed us to fight twice in Afghanistan, not only as its partner but as a major non-Nato ally. Personally, I have no doubt that our international isolation is US-gifted. The great challenge that our policymakers now face is to create an enabling and encouraging environment that transforms the world’s opinion about us. The catch here is that we cannot do this alone, we have to carry Afghanistan along with us.

The safety, security and prosperity of Afghanistan means the safety, security and prosperity of Pakistan — this is not a myth but the moral of the story that an entire generation of Pakistan has read, seen and lived growing up while Afghanistan fought a war for its existence for over four decades. With the creation of enabling circumstances for peace, the Taliban regime needs to clearly decide what it stands for. “Stand for or stand against something” is a clear metric to judge the qualification of any country to become part of the world community. The “stand for” part of the metric will require the Taliban to abide by the promises they have made to the international community. They must clearly understand why the world wants them to be part of the liberal world order. But what should the liberal order mean to the Taliban?

Being liberal is not being western. If you safeguard the rights of your citizens, including women and minorities, and slash the tyrannical rule for which you were previously disliked and detested — that would be a great starting point for promoting a liberal system.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are both in dire need of diplomatic accommodation. Both countries have previously been victims of great power rivalries. For a very long time the choices these countries made were the choices imposed on them, which in turn created the resulting circumstances that have shaped, undermined, exploited or transformed their worlds for good or for worst. The strategic consequences that both countries suffer today were shaped and engineered abroad.

Imposing sanctions or persisting with international isolationism is not the treatment that both Pakistan and Afghanistan deserve. Neither is the fall of the Taliban regime the right objective to base any strategy upon. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan need the world community to demonstrate strategic patience and allow them strategic space and opportunity for a long due chance to bring about societal transformation. There are three important components related to any national transformation. The cultural component which envisions the end of the status quo and the creation of a revisionist state needs time to develop. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the rules of the game changed. Adapting and adjusting to these rules not only needs time but also international assistance. This cultural component of the transformation process can only succeed when the world community works together to lead, sponsor and support the other two components during the transformation process — economy and security. You can’t put the cart before the horse by expecting societal transformation to occur before security and economic transformation.

The world must allow both countries to ride the momentum of this new-found peace and the best way to do that would not be by limiting its role and abandoning its engagement, but by taking less tougher positions and helping them increase their economic efficiencies and maximising their growth and development. There is a strategic window of opportunity which will soon close if people in Afghanistan become frustrated and dissatisfied, and civil war breaks out. If the US continues to look at the developments in Afghanistan from the lens of the geopolitical struggle with China and other powers in the region, then it will only increase the regional security competition.

The West was built on the three great revolutions of science, industry and politics. How can “international isolation”, “sanctions” and “economic depravity” be the existing realities on which Afghanistan can rebuild itself and become a responsible member of the world community? The world must realise that the huge crowd of people it sees outside the main passport office in Kabul is because of what the US and its allies have done to their homeland — they have made it almost unlivable. At the dawn of this new age, what the people of Afghanistan need is an opportunity to transform with the world lending them help to create a new and all-inclusive political system.

I have written this earlier and I write this again: a society can only be as fair as the knowledge it is built on. Only when the children of Afghanistan have access to schools, colleges and universities will they be able to create and understand the framework of knowledge and be aware of their rights.

If the world expects Pakistan not to recognise the Taliban government in a hurry, then Pakistan also expects the world to refrain from creating conditions that might lead to a regime change in Afghanistan. The US military headwinds have prevented the cultural and social transformation of both Pakistan and Afghanistan for forty long years. What these countries need now is increased economic tailwinds to transform their economies, make up for the lost opportunities, and level up with the rest of the world community.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2021.

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