We love the Afghan Taliban — the slayers of arrogant global superpowers — but not so much their brothers-in-arms in Pakistan, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Is there a method to our madness that only the khaki-inspired ‘strategic’ mindset is capable of comprehending?
We have over 40,000 citizens and probably another 5,000 or so security personnel dead. We hear emphatic demands by TTP apologists for complete disassociation with the US war in Afghanistan. How about revisiting Pakistan’s Afghan policy vis-à-vis the Taliban?
The first interaction with any Afghan outside of Pakistan in conferences etc is truly shocking. The anger towards Pakistan for being the architect of all of Afghanistan’s problems is unmistakable, even if exaggerated. It is like hearing the Jamaat-i-Islami speak of the US as the fountainhead of all of Pakistan’s ailments. If you ask our Afghan experts about this revulsion of our neighbour they’ll tell you that you probably met the wrong folk, who are paranoid and ungrateful, just like Hamid Karzai.
Pakistan’s Afghan policy is changed we are told. We no longer want Taliban rule across Afghanistan, like in the 1990s. We now want a pluralist government in Afghanistan that represents all ethnic groups, led by the Pakhtuns and with the Taliban as a dominant subset of the Pakhtun segment. Does this plan sound anymore realistic than the one we have for the TTP: we’ll tell them nicely that we hate the Americans and the drones and love the Sharia and then we will live happily ever after?
If you ask intelligence gurus or diplomats who ‘handled’ the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s, they’ll tell you candidly that the Pakistani state’s influence over the Taliban government was miniscule. Does Pakistan have leverage with the Afghan Taliban today? Much less than what Pakistan had in the 1990s you are told. Have the Taliban fundamentally changed their ideology or worldview over the last decade? They’ve learnt from mistakes, but there has been no radical transformation you are told.
The Taliban have a totalitarian approach to power. They don’t believe in dividing the pie or sharing it. After having evaded extermination at the hands of the Americans for over a decade will they now sign on to the theoretical idea of building a pluralist federal state that distributes power between all Afghan stakeholders, including those who have been killing TTP leaders? Developing a working relationship with the world if you plan to retake Afghanistan is one thing; embracing enemies at home quite another.
So then it boils down to this. The Taliban are a totalitarian exclusionary force. Post 2014 they will control the parts of Afghanistan that border Pakistan, if not more. Let’s continue to appease them and save whatever levers of influence we can, as opposed to making them more angry at us than they presently are (for betraying them after 9/11), for that is the best safeguard to prepare for the US withdrawal in 2014. And how will the Taliban treat the TTP and Fata post 2014? Abandon their brothers-in-arms and give up strategic depth in Pakistan?
The Afghan Taliban will do to Pakistan, in relation to the TTP, what Pakistan does to the US, in relation to the Afghan Taliban: support the TTP (not-so) secretly as a negotiating tool and safeguard against Pakistan and claim Fata as a strategic backwater in the internecine Afghan war that will commence post-US withdrawal. And what will Taliban success in Afghanistan do to the TTP? It will embolden it, provide it secure sanctuaries, strengthen it and encourage it to claim Pakistan just as the Taliban claim Afghanistan.
What is the cost of our flawed Afghan policy? Would there be a TTP today if Pakistan had not operationalized the jihadi project in the 1980s or nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s? What is the human cost of our 30-year engagement with Afghanistan as self-styled kingmakers? What is the economic cost inflicted by refugees, smuggling and terror? What is the social cost produced by guns, drugs and radicalization of society? Should this be ‘acceptable cost’ as a strategic matter?
What is truly mind-boggling is that neither 9/11 and Pakistan’s withdrawal of support for the Taliban government (but not Taliban the jihadists) nor the emergence of TTP has led us to rework our Afghan policy, one capable of cultivating sustainable peace with a troubled neighbor. Barring exceptions, neither those who wish to talk our brother terrorists out of violence, nor those vying for the state to vanquish the TTP by force, focus on the range of policies and actions imperative for establishing peace in Pakistan.
Re-establishing the writ of the state in North Waziristan that is presently the Emirate of TTP is an important first step. Even those who disagree about how to go about doing this — through talks or use of force — must acknowledge that we need to simultaneously focus on all other state policies and societal factors that ferment terror. On the external front let us start with the Afghan policy. Can we not use some cooling-off there? Let’s not be imperialists, facilitators fixing the jigsaw, or adversaries selling the Taliban to the yanks.
Let us try neutral disengagement for once. Let us be isolationists not playing the big game, but focused on putting our house in order. Let us develop better control over the flow of men, material and money into Pakistan. Let India fill the vacuum created by our withdrawal from intra-Afghan affairs as a worst case, and burn its fingers like us. Let us carve in stone that non-state actors will never again be national security assets and whatever fighting capacity we need, we’ll develop within the state security forces.
Let us develop an amnesty scheme to reintegrate within society those militants who wish to give up arms. Let us develop de-radicalization, rehabilitation and monitoring programs to foster peace and rehabilitation within the tribal areas. Let us work on mainstreaming Fata and extending the entire scheme of constitutional rights and responsibilities to its residents. Beyond the talks versus use of force debate there is a whole range of necessary policy, governance and structural initiatives required to establish peace that we haven’t even begun to identify.
The writer is a Pakistan-based lawyer.