Two blowbacks from Afghanistan

Published: May 5, 2012
The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore

Pakistan is about to face the second ‘withdrawal’ blowback from Afghanistan. The first, after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, came under General Ziaul Haq, whose policies metamorphosed Pakistan into an adventurist, fundamentalist nation with its face turned to the past. The second is upon us now, as the US Army gets ready to withdraw. Both events will coalesce to cause severe existential disorder in Pakistan.

In General Zia’s war, the blowback for Moscow was in the shape of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The US became the sole superpower after that. The blowback for it was silently taking shape within the Islamic warriors it had mustered in Pakistan. The post-Soviet euphoria was expressed through the term ‘New World Order’. Pakistan, sunk under its own Ziaist legacy, delivered the 2001 punch to the US in the shape of the al Qaeda attack.

Iran defeated the US in Iraq, and its people are paying a price for this victory with their freedoms. Pakistan’s non-state actors (Taliban, etc.) and foreign warriors have defeated the US in Afghanistan under Pakistan’s doctrine of  ‘strategic depth’ — and the people of Pakistan should get ready to pay a price for this victory too. General Zia spawned madrassas and tried to create a pattern of governance resembling the khilafat. Pakistan became a Machiavelli’s nightmare — who had warned the Medici of Florence not to employ mercenaries to fight their wars — crawling with “civilian warriors” sharing internal sovereignty with the state.

As it gets ready for the blowback from the American defeat in Afghanistan, ‘victor’ Pakistan’s parliament is presiding over a state without internal control, while protesting external sovereignty against American drones. Almost 60 per cent of its territory is controlled by terrorists and insurgents. The terrorists are led by al Qaeda, whose certified capacity to control the behaviour of Pakistan’s large madrassa network is paralleled by its growing penetration into the army rank and file. Violence and its corollary, intimidation, persuade the population — the rich and the poor alike — to embrace al Qaeda’s ‘nation-building’.

What Iran did not face because of its oil and totalitarianism is economic collapse and loss of internal sovereignty. In Pakistan, the masses can no longer bear the burden of  ‘victory’ and are increasingly willing to overthrow the current system of governance — not through another takeover by a general but by anyone who would give them the capacity to survive. No one who would win their support can even think of governing without first swearing hatred of the US and acceptance of the terrorists as “our brothers”.

The winds that blow from the Muslim world are not reassuring after the chastening experience of the Arab Spring. Olivier Roy says that the youth that gathered at the Tahrir Square lacked the will to take over Egypt when it was ripe for the plucking and let it be snapped up by the Islamists. Irfan Husain in his book Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West (Harper Collins India 2012) says that when he googled ‘rightwing militant groups’ on his computer he got 392,000 websites spewing plans to “remake the world in their own vision of utopia, and never mind the collateral damage”.

Implosion caused by an outdated Pakistani mind, or collateral damage caused by the West trying to survive against Islamic aggression, may doom Pakistan in its present shape. It may ape Afghanistan and survive by giving up its internal writ, some of it already given up in preparation. A path-dependent, economically damaged Islamic state threatens its neighbourhood with jihad because its vision for the future is untenable.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (36)

  • Ali Tanoli
    May 5, 2012 - 11:57PM

    Another scary Dream ooh lala.Recommend

  • Brajanarayan
    May 6, 2012 - 12:08AM

    A well written article. Let us wait for the time to tell us the outcome. It is not that easy to predict future from events of the past and international factors are not same as it was during Soviet war. America is no more capable of directing events in its favour. It is losing everywhere. Much depends on Pakistan’s internal realignments.


  • Ali Tanoli
    May 6, 2012 - 12:39AM

    Two blowback both unwanted gifts.Recommend

  • Thoughtful
    May 6, 2012 - 12:43AM

    Well said.


  • BlackJack
    May 6, 2012 - 12:56AM

    You have articulated the world’s (currently) worst nightmare – Pakistan under the control of rightwing extremists who want no future if it is not on their terms. It is not possible to reason with them, and thus the limited alternatives available to neighbors like India that will bear the brunt of such a breakdown are too terrifying to contemplate. Pakistan’s army still has the capability to take on these terrorists and bring them to heel – Sri Lanka has managed to do it with a far smaller professional army; but this will require open declaration of war on self-professed guardians of Islam (an image built with consistent establishment support), and the ensuing convulsions in civil society may still set Pakistan further down on the path to anarchy.


  • Yuriy
    May 6, 2012 - 1:31AM

    I generally agree with what this article says but a few things:

    Pakistan had no choice but to fight the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan, in exactly the same way that it did. Pakistan was fighting a defensive war then. What was not done right is prevent the radicals and Afghan refugees to permeate Pakistani society, the state failed to keep these people’s presence and operations limited to a particular war and debrief them when that war ended. Pakistan’s strategic depth policy was also a defensive one. Pakistan’s own security depends hugely on keeping a non-hostile government in power in Afghanistan and since that country was in a state of total war after the Soviets withdrew, and since anything that happens in Afghanistan has extremely harmful spillover effects on Pakistan, Islamabad rightly chose to intervene and keep that country out of the hands of Pakistan’s enemies. That consideration will always motivate Pakistan’s actions and rightly so. Afghanistan has only itself to blame for everything Pakistan has ever done to it, Afghanistan made it clear again and again starting from 1947 that Pakistan could ONLY live in peace with that country by keeping a tight leash around its neck. The presence of the Western invader forces is the single biggest destabilizing factor on this entire region, it is the long term effects of their screwups that Pakistan will have to live with into the future. Whatever Pakistan’s faults may be, ultimately the lion’s share of the responsibility for turning this region into a mess rests with the US. Also the US is NOT withdrawing in 2014 they’re staying there indefinitely now that they have a new strategic partnership agreement with Kabul.

    Pakistan needs better management of its policies in order to prevent dangerous side-effects on its own society, the policies themselves that Pakistan adopted were not only the correct ones to take, they were also unavoidable. Any other country in Pakistan’s place would have done the same, get used to it!


  • ukmuslim
    May 6, 2012 - 2:17AM

    Iran defeated the US in Iraq.. and Pakistan’s non-state actors (Taliban, etc.) and foreign warriors have defeated the US in Afghanistan under Pakistan’s doctrine of ‘strategic depth’

    we can not say that usa was defeated. in no way it is defeat. usa was not affected millitarily, economically or politically. the country or its people have no impact of the wars. so best we can say that, usa was not suceeded in achieving the goals in those countries.

    rest of the article is a good analysis.


  • C. Nandkishore
    May 6, 2012 - 4:33AM

    Yes, yes, yes. I have been saying this for the last so many years but my comments were never printed. The day America leaves Afghanistan countdown for Pakistan starts. Jihad parties too will fail because responsibilities of a State with respect to its citizens is quite different and CANNOT be fulfilled by jihadist parties. Funnily I think the savior may turnout to be Zardari.


  • Imran Con
    May 6, 2012 - 4:53AM

    “Iran defeated the US in Iraq”
    straight from the Pakistani history booksRecommend

  • Som Tyagi
    May 6, 2012 - 5:06AM

    There are few commentators anywhere in the world who can match the brevity without sacrificing the precision of insight that Khaled Ahmed provides. We should listen to him.


  • s shah
    May 6, 2012 - 5:26AM

    Excellent and very courageous article. Bravo.


  • vasan
    May 6, 2012 - 6:26AM

    Pakistan has reduced its poverty below 17.5% esp during the last 2 years. Everyone is thriving and thriving well and more than India and China. So why would the common man want to alter the system?
    Whom does one believe ?


  • Feroz
    May 6, 2012 - 7:05AM

    This is a brilliant piece written in agony by a towering intellectual. Is it not clear as daylight to the people that you cannot pander and appease a violent section of society who will kill those who oppose their viewpoint. Does the country have the capacity to change its mindset and finally kill the monster it has created or will the global community be forced to intervene and do the clean up job. Nothing has changed over the last 30 years – indoctrination, terrorist training, fiery hate speeches, mollycoddling of non state actors and suicide attacks. To continue doing the same with expectation of different results is not just folly but a sure sign of mental degradation.


  • logic wins
    May 6, 2012 - 8:42AM

    The real targets are India and China. Destabilizing Pakistan and arming jihadis with nukes
    puts both India and China on the backfoot. Al Qaeda,Saudi Arabia and America are fighting
    on the same side in Syria.What does this tell you?There is match fixing between the Saud family, the Wahabis and American oil companies.


  • ali
    May 6, 2012 - 8:50AM

    Was raising and supporting the Mujahideen rather than the Afghan nationalists liberals against the soviets a sound tactic?


  • Lawangin
    May 6, 2012 - 9:05AM

    Yuriy@ no country has any right to intervene for the sake of securing its stratetig depth. If we accept that then Pakistan itself would be used for the same purpose. How and why the Russain entered Afghanisan is no more a secrete. The world also know that the Afghan Mujhahideen Gulbadin, Rabbani, Masood and Sayaf became Pakistani guests since 1973. Afghan Saur Revolution came in April 1978, while the Russain came in December 1979. General was not welcomed by any country from July 1977 to December 1979, however the Khamni revolution in Iran (1979) and the Russian intervention in December 1979, forced the so called free world to welcome the brute dictator with open arms and treasures. General missed up everything in Pakistan to earn legtiacy and dollars. the introduction of development funds to the partyless legislator of Majlis Shoora and the free hand to the fundamentalist from across the world. My point is it was not becuase of any circumtancial ncessities neither accedential invovlement, rather a planned and acceptance with understanding the conequnces.


  • May 6, 2012 - 11:41AM


    You justify Pakistani meddling into Afghanistan by saying it was needed. Was it really?

    Lets suppose it was required, US supported ISI which inturn supported the Mujahideen, now called Terrorists. But, the blame goes to the US? US gave money and weapons, everything else was provided by Pakistan. US has done this in many Countries all over the World, Pakistan was a willing participant.

    If one of my friends asks me to try out something bad, its on me to control the outcome. I cannot blame my friend. He did what he thought was right, and I should have been smarter.

    US, at any rate, did not force Pakistan to train the Mujahideens, equip them, provide them shelter. Pakistan willingly jumped in.

    Lets for a moment come to the events after the war. Pakistan had got rid of USSR and it had thousands and thousands of Mujahideen Islamic warriors at its control, what does it do? It sends them to Kashmir. This massively radicalized Pakistan, yet Pakistan is not the solely responsible. How strange.

    The events after that are too easy to deconstruct and show Pakistan in poor light. The trend is evident- Pakistan has itself to blame, no one else.


  • observer
    May 6, 2012 - 11:58AM


    Pakistan had no choice but to fight the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan, in exactly the same way that it did. Pakistan was fighting a defensive war then.

    You could not be further from the truth.

    Fact is Pakistan instigated armed rebellion against the Socialist government of Afghanistan, much before the Soviets came marching in. Just Google Hekmatyar and find his patrons, specially Naseerullah Babar.Look for events during 1975-77.

    When the attacks started threatening the Afghan regime, they invited the Soviets in, the year was 1979.

    And on these very pages even Zafar Hilay has admitted that the canard of the Soviets looking for warm waters of Pakistani ports, was as pure a canard as any in history. Declassified Kremlin papers establish that the Soviets had no such intentions.

    So much for your ‘defensive war’.


  • Lala
    May 6, 2012 - 12:41PM

    I’m afraid there seems to be a conscious effort to ignore or not mention the role Pakistan’s policies of using terrorism against India has had in shaping the mess it is in today. In every article in Pakistani newspapers that talks about Pakistan’s current situation, or its problems with fundamental Islam seems to purposely not mention the Pakistani establishments foolish mistakes, such as, propagandizing hatred towards Hindus and specifically, Indians, which has had a huge role in morally funding these terrorist groups. If Pakistani’s want their establishment to change, they need to point out their mistakes fearlessly, instead of being wary of being portrayed as one ‘speaking’ for India.


  • Ali Wali
    May 6, 2012 - 2:09PM

    We all know when Americans will withdraw their forces from Afghanistan, the so called Jihadi cowards looking for enemies will ruin Pakistan, well if they already haven’t done enough damage! However sad situation in Lyari tells us that it will be hard for Taliban Terror Alliance to occupy whole Pakistan, given the quantity and quality of weapons in civilian possession in Punjab and Sindh. Once Pakistani establishment is out of way, air from Taliban Terror Alliance’s baloon will be out sooner than expected. As absolute majority of Punjabis and Sindhis do not share Taliban Deobandi idealogy, thus these cowards will have no place in future of these region. For Punjabis and Sindhis if Pashtuns want Taliban rule for themselves, they can have it, our border will be at Indus river, and people will defend themselves from Taliban Terror Alliance.


  • Ignorant
    May 6, 2012 - 2:51PM

    “Pakistan’s own security depends hugely on keeping a non-hostile government in power in Afghanistan and since that country was in a state of total war after the Soviets withdrew, and since anything that happens in Afghanistan has extremely harmful spillover effects on Pakistan, Islamabad rightly chose to intervene and keep that country out of the hands of Pakistan’s enemies.”

    For once please replace ‘Pakistan’ with Army or make it Pakistan Army’s. When it certainly cannot tolerate a hostile government on its own soil how can it learn to live with a hostile government in the neighborhood? Pakistan’s security depended on those whose own security depended on rearing militant groups and splitting the political landscape in their own country in their own favor even if it required them to spend public funds on winning over petty politicians and destabilizing elected governments. What a country!


  • May 6, 2012 - 5:41PM

    @Yuriy: A very flawed analysis. Mr Yuriy says “Pakistan had no choice but to fight the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan, in exactly the same way that it did. Pakistan was fighting a defensive war then.” Absolutely false. All the world class analysis indicates that Pakistan had no business there. Mr Yuriy says “Pakistan’s strategic depth policy was also a defensive one. Pakistan’s own security depends hugely on keeping a non-hostile government in power in Afghanistan” This is also rubbish and a thinking that is the root of all trouble. No country can be allowed to use another country as its strategic depth or backyard. Even the mighty America could not do so to Cuba or China to Korea. Pakistan must respect the sovereignty of every country as it wants others to respect her sovereignty. The theory of strategic depth is product of a deranged mind in the present world.


  • saleem
    May 6, 2012 - 6:12PM

    Afghanistan was better off under the Soviets , the world was better off with 2 super powers. It would have been better for Pakistan if Moscow had reached the warm waters thru Pakistan


  • Lala Gee
    May 6, 2012 - 6:32PM

    I am sick of the analysts who paint a very gloomy picture of the future of Pakistan, but fail to give any solution. They choose the easy part of pointing fingers at the flaws in the society and blunders committed by the leaders but skip the real part of suggesting a strategy how to overcome the problem.


  • true muslim
    May 6, 2012 - 6:53PM

    @Lala Gee, the country is in state of war since long and you expecting romantic novels


  • realist
    May 6, 2012 - 7:01PM

    I dont really understand: Why USSR wanted the warm water ports of Karachi? Wasnt India her close buddy then? Mumbai port (another warm water port) wasnt that far away from Karachi, was it?


  • Lala Gee
    May 6, 2012 - 7:17PM

    @true muslim:

    “@Lala Gee, the country is in state of war since long and you expecting romantic novels”

    Strategy – romantic novels! Good sense of humor.


  • s shah
    May 6, 2012 - 7:54PM

    @ignorant, @Vinod, 100% agree with your comments. The “strategy” of strategic depth by the Pak army, which has so spectacularly backfired, was typically shortsighted military thinking. It would have served Pakistan much much better if we had not interfered in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and stayed neutral throughout. We should at least start now and stay neutral and not interfere in Afghanistan. However, from Yuriy’s comments, it is interesting to see that this paranoid delusional thinking persists and that the Pak army is still not taking any responsibility for this mess, but is blaming everyone but itself!


  • Lala Gee
    May 6, 2012 - 8:41PM


    “Pakistan must respect the sovereignty of every country as it wants others to respect her sovereignty.”

    Pakistan must respect the sovereignty of every country as India did respect the sovereignty of Pakistan during 1970–1971 or the sovereignty of Sri Lanka during 1983-1987.


  • Lala Gee
    May 6, 2012 - 8:46PM


    Ignoring the cause and cursing the reaction can never solve the problem.


  • Lala Gee
    May 6, 2012 - 9:03PM

    @All Indian Bloc

    Strategic depth! Strategic depth!, Strategic depth! By demonizing the concept of strategic depth, you think, Pakistani people are so naive that they will fall for your propaganda and abandon Afghanistan and give India a free hand there. Why are you spending billions of dollars there? Just out of altruism? Why did you spend billions on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam? We know the game, so keep your advice to yourself and save your time and energy for doing some thing positive.


  • logic wins
    May 6, 2012 - 10:04PM

    @s shah:
    We have to go back to the genesis of Pakistan to understand the events.Though Jinnah
    may take credit in Pakistan and Gandhi the blame in India,it was really the imperial
    power Great Britain which pushed the cause of Pakistan due to its unique geographical
    location.It was in the backyard of Russia,China and India.The new imperial power America
    cultivated Pakistan by giving it a seat in SEATO/CENTO ,military and financial aid.
    Pakistan was used by USA as a springboard into Afghanistan when Soviet Russia invaded
    Afghanistan thus justifying the reason it was created for.
    Now India and China are the emerging powers and destabilizing Pakistan would create
    uncertainty in the whole region.


  • politicaly incorrect
    May 7, 2012 - 12:24AM

    @Lala Gee

    You seem to think Pakistan owns Afghanistan and as such Indian presence in Afghanistan is a non starter.
    Why don’t you leave it to the Afghans.You sure are living in a ‘Lala’ (pun intended) land.


  • Venky
    May 7, 2012 - 9:50AM

    You have the courage to write such articles. Thanks.


  • Lala Gee
    May 7, 2012 - 10:01AM

    @politicaly incorrect:

    “You seem to think Pakistan owns Afghanistan and as such Indian presence in Afghanistan is a non starter.”

    Afghans are our Muslim brothers bonded with us through common culture (Pashtuns) and border, while India has nothing in common with them. In the time of their difficulties we welcomed them in millions and millions are still living in Pakistan.

    India’s malicious presence there is only to sow hatred among the two brotherly nations and make them fight with each other so that they can take revenge with minimum effort from Afghans in particular and Muslims in general for invading India and destroying Somnat and other temples.


  • No Same Same
    May 7, 2012 - 1:07PM

    Khaled Ahmed, Irfan Hussain – one hopes true intellectuals and courageous thinkers like these are not wasted in Pakistan. Sometimes one reads Pakistani ‘liberal intellectuals’ and cannot tell whether their words came straight from Rawalpindi.


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