Let me reveal a secret. The US President Barack Obama is on the payroll of the Pakistani ‘establishment’. This is how it goes.
Obama, instead of bringing Jeffersonian democracy to Afghanistan, wants to negotiate with the Taliban and get out. By doing that he indirectly supports Pakistan’s reviled strategic depth policy. He also feels, as do many analysts in Washington, that the Taliban run a shadow government in the various provinces of Afghanistan because the government in Kabul has failed to provide good governance; he realises that talking to the Taliban means reaching out to (argh!) Mullah Omar. Ahmed Rashid, a leading expert on Afghanistan, considers, ceteris paribus, that it is a good development that the US wants to negotiate with the Taliban and fears that leaks about the rounds of negotiations held so far could derail the process.
He also wants Pakistan to get its act together and help the US reach a settlement, that being the foremost prerequisite for an orderly US withdrawal.
All of this means that Obama’s approach is anti-Pakhtun and he equates the Taliban with the Pakhtuns. Worse, like Pakistan, Obama’s desire to seek a stable government in Kabul and Washington’s thinking that Pakistan must play a role in facilitating its withdrawal from Afghanistan indicates he is being hegemonic.
But wait. It’s not just him. Writing in International Affairs, Rudra Chaudhry and Theo Farrell (“Campaign disconnect: operational progress and strategic obstacles in Afghanistan, 2009–2011”) argue that while the Isaf has notched significant successes at the operation level, it has failed to meet those prerequisites without which the insurgency can be made irrelevant. They call it the operational-strategic disconnect. This disconnect now requires that the Taliban be engaged.
Separately, in a draft chapter for a book, “Negotiating the way out: The need for dialogue in Afghanistan”, Rudra Chaudhry kicks off by saying that it is now widely considered as fact that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won. Hence the importance of writing an essay that sketches the underlying logic of negotiating with the Taliban. Chaudhry and Farrell, both honest scholars, must also be in the pay of the Pakistani establishment.
According to Chaudhry — those who have studied insurgencies know he is spot-on — “Conventional wisdom dictates that almost all insurgencies end with a political bargain between the government and its sponsors on one side, and the insurgency and its supporters on the other. On average, it is said to take a decade before the key actors make it to the negotiating table.”
Another one is former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles. Even when he was on the job, he was working for Pakistan and advocating a political solution to the problem. But the real coup by the Pakistani establishment is getting the former chief of the MI5, Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller, to say that it is important to understand the causes of ressentiment in the Muslim world and the western governments should try and talk to (horror of horrors!) al Qaeda.
There are many other analysts and one can’t list all those who the Pakistani establishment has infected in some way or the other.
Okay, I concede that this was a bit of spoofing. But I played it this way because it points to the penchant of abominations on both left and right to cast aspersions on anyone who does not subscribe to their worldview. They select, de-contextualise and accuse, insisting at the same time that this activity falls under the category of open, democratic debate and must not be challenged. That’s poppycock. Democracy is not mobocracy, which is why America’s founding fathers made clear that despite their emphasis on many fundamental freedoms they were not aiming to recreate Athenian democracy, and personal attacks do not constitute debate.
But some partisans have chosen to do just that to a recent joint report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and Jinnah Institute (JI) which is the product of multiple roundtables involving 53 Pakistanis interested in foreign policy issues.
Nothing is sacred. People have a right to debate issues. Neither can any one report or paper cover all the details of any issue, much less one as complex and wicked as Afghanistan. One of the participants, Nasim Zehra, has already written in detail in the Daily Times about the intent of the USIP-JI report — quoting extensively from it — and the multiple voices it tried to reconcile. I shan’t therefore go into the details, but a few points need to be made.
First, policy is not about what is desirable but what is doable. There is no Lockean tabula rasa in human affairs. Serious analysts have to work in and through what is on the ground, not through ideological prisms.
Second, keeping this in mind, the report merely attempted to see how the Pakistani state is likely to behave in the run-up to the end game in Afghanistan: what are its options and what is good and bad about the exercise of those options. As I noted in a previous article, this report is the first of its kind, an exercise to see if Pakistan has a viable Afghan policy. None of the participants, as the discussions proceeded, seemed happy with the way Pakistan has dealt with Afghanistan. At the same time all were cognisant of what can and cannot be done, given a host of factors.
Third, I was also part of another one-day roundtable whose findings have been put out by the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Lahore’s Forman Christian College. One ad hominem critic of the report has praised the FC college report. It amazed me because that report too attempted to reconcile disparate views and arrived at a view which I think complements the USIP-JI report by flagging many issues which were also discussed at length during the roundtables for the latter report. This can be corroborated by a careful reading of both the reports. But such a study can only be done if one is approaching both the efforts in a nonpartisan manner.
Fourth, reading the foreword to the USIP-JI report makes clear that the initial idea for the report developed in the context of US-Pakistan relations. The participants agreed that debate in Pakistan was often contradictory and inconclusive and the state needed to listen to and reconcile voices. This was the first tentative step towards that effort. As the report makes clear, there is nothing final about its findings. Figuratively speaking, this is the motif throughout the report in bold print. It can only be missed by partisans.
Finally, it is now accepted across the board that the insurgency cannot be weakened because the Isaf and the Afghan government have failed to bolster governance and reach. That fact cannot be wished away and any policy framework has to accept it. Abstractions don’t work in prescriptive work; if they did, America would not be talking to the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2011.