Our (Pakistani) governments – past or present – possess a remarkable propensity to embarrass us every now and then with their reckless statements. Often, they open their mouth on critical issues to the total disregard of possible consequences for the interests and the image of their country.
The latest bravado came from the commando General Pervez Musharraf when he admitted (AFP, February 13) that “in President Karzai’s times, yes, indeed, he was damaging Pakistan and therefore we were working against his interest. Obviously we had to protect our own interest”. In saying that, he only proved what the Americans, Indians and Afghans had so far alleged. In fact, in their public hearings and press appearances, most Congressmen in Washington said the same. The ISI and Pakistan Army have defeated us in Afghanistan, a number of officials at Pentagon used to insist, and they are responsible for the killing of our boys.
That is why, on February 14, a day after Musharraf went public with his admission on ties with Afghan Taliban, former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh threw Musharraf’s statement in our faces at a counter-terrorism conference in Geneva, to counter my response to his argument that “Pakistan is the source of all ills in Afghanistan.”
“Your own president has made the confession of having cultivated and supported Taliban,” Saleh retorted when I requested him through an intervention not to mislead foreigners with his one-sided Pakistan-bashing. The Taliban are terrorists for you, but it is not just Pakistan, China and the United States who are trying to reach out to those terrorists. Your own president Hamid Karzai kept asking them for dialogue, I pointed out.
During his speech, Saleh even decried China for “pushing us to talk to Taliban terrorists.” It is ironic that China is asking us to make peace with the Taliban while it is cracking down on the Chinese Taliban associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the former Afghan intelligence chief argued. “Why is there no meaningful pressure on a state next to us which is giving sanctuary to Taliban?” he asked, referring to Pakistan. “Why have there been no sanctions on a state that abets terrorism?” asked Saleh, calling it double-standards of global politics. “We have allied with you against terrorism for 14 years. Please don’t compromise us and don’t embolden the Taliban by offering peace to them,” he said.
A Chinese official present at the conference shot back at Saleh. He said his government was only trying to facilitate intra-Afghan reconciliation. Don’t call it a surrender to terrorists, he said. Taliban are your people and your president Ashraf Ghani had been asking the world community for help in reaching out to the insurgent group. We will do as much as we can as long as the Afghans want us to, said the official.
Saleh’s diatribe did not surprise those who know him. He was accused of Pakistan-bashing since much before he fell out with Karzai and had to resign under the burden of circumstances in 2013. As far back as in June 2010, at a counter-terrorism conference in Washington, he had roared before a packed hall: Terrorism in Pakistan will not end until the Taliban are pulled out of the ISI cellars in Islamabad and handed over to Afghanistan.
In those days, General Musharraf and his successor General Ashfaq Kayani used to make an effort to persuade the world that Pakistan had nothing to do with the Afghan Taliban. They would often even mock Karzai’s assertions that Taliban enjoyed sanctuaries in Quetta and Waziristan. Not that we ever believed them, but the reality was that these denials caused considerable consternation both at home and abroad. Foreigners in particular hardly accorded any credibility to these denials, but still the official position did provide the national media and some analysts with some cover to cloak Pakistan’s engagement with the Taliban.
Amrullah Saleh certainly has a point when he criticizes the duplicitous role the Pakistani security establishment played under General Musharraf, and possibly also under General Kayani. We at home too kept questioning that interventionist policy. A number of Pakistani commentators have been asking the GHQ to break with the forces that represent medieval obscurantism and cannot be our partners in the liberal socio-political development that is our ultimate goal.
But where Saleh is wrong is his attempt to paint everything in black and white – disregarding the gray area in which geopolitics operate. His position on Pakistan’s support for Taliban implies that support to Taliban is support to terrorists. He equates political support for Afghan Taliban to a license to murder. Nobody can hold another country responsible for a running blood feud between the Taliban and the former Northern Alliance. The roots of this animosity lay largely in the betrayal that the Taliban had reportedly endured at the hands of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had encouraged the Kandhari fighters to overrun Gulbuddin Hekmetyar’s positions south of Kabul if they wanted to capture Kabul. But once the Taliban did that, they met with fierce resistance by the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was then in charge of Kabul.
Saleh’s argument also glaringly overlooks the proxy assets that all big powers use as instruments of political leverage. This phenomenon is not unique to Pakistan. Amrullah Saleh also overlooks the unfolding dynamic between the security establishments in Kabul and Rawalpindi. He seems to underestimate the change that the GHQ may be undergoing under General Raheel Sharif, in spite of the complex legacy of his predecessors. Angered by the brutal butchery of women and children at the Army Public School on December 16, Gen Sharif has tried to – like nobody else before him – open up to and engage with Kabul. But change wont happen overnight. Undoing that intricate legacy would take time.
One would however hope that Gen Sharif and Premier Sharif coordinate their future course, and take everybody on board to address the concerns flying out of Kabul and New Delhi. Neutralizing the Afghan security establishment’s reservations is an equally daunting challenge not only for President Ashraf Ghani but also for the Pakistani civil-military leadership, which has not had a more favorable environment in Kabul before. This was illustrated in the February 20 statement from the Presidential Palace in Kabul: “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan appreciates Pakistan’s recent efforts in paving the ground for peace and reconciliation. We welcome the recent position Pakistan has taken in pronouncing Afghanistan’s enemy as Pakistan’s.”
It also underscored that “understanding the common threats and challenges, Afghan and Pakistani leaders have recently come to the conclusion to undertake joint efforts and cooperation for counter-terrorism,” recalling that the heinous terrorist attack in Yahya Khel of Paktika and the attack on innocent school children in Peshawar have strengthened the resolve of the leadership of the two countries to make joint efforts in the fight against terrorism and extremism.
The Afghan Presidential Palace cautioned against “elements opposing the peace process by spreading false information to cause public confusion and anxiety,” and promised to “keep Afghan people and all other stakeholders fully informed at all stages of the peace process.”
This unusual goodwill represents a huge opportunity for Pakistan to build on and disprove – through solid actions – the skeptics of the establishment’s intentions.
This article first appeared in The Friday Times. Click here to go to the original.