For more than a quarter of a century, the history of Afghanistan is one of unending violence, death and tears. Now let us see what the future holds for this unfortunate land and, by extension, for Pakistan and the whole South Asian region. This future begins in July 2011, when US President Barack Obama will begin withdrawing 10,000 troops. General David H Petraeus wants the withdrawal to be slow because, in his opinion, the eastern part of the country is still insecure. But Obama’s mind seems to be made up. He wants this done soon and, in addition, he wants the 33,000 troops he sent in the autumn of 2009 to come back home before 2012 too. This withdrawal is widely linked with the coming presidential elections in the US but, even granting this, is this a bad thing? If many Americans want the end of the Afghan war, is the desire of the military and the neocons to give a tough nationalistic front to the world the best course of action? Or is it peace and reconciliation and the cutting of losses?
Those who have read Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars (2010) know how the American military, which surrounded the president, finally persuaded him to send in these troops as part of the ‘surge’ policy. But now, perhaps because of the confidence Obama has gained in the last few months, he has decided not to give in to the military’s pressure ending on this protracted and useless conflict. And, in my view, it is a good decision.
Anyone who has read my article on the surge in The News on Sunday (Dec 12, 2010) will bear witness that the policy supported by the military has not achieved what it was supposed to achieve. Indeed, anyone who goes back even further to my article warning against a war in Afghanistan (The News, Sept 17, 2001) will agree that the war was not the solution to the threat posed to the US by al Qaeda. If at all any policy would have worked, it was covert action based on intelligence reports and predators. However, that did not happen and now, after 10 years and thousands of wasted lives and incomputable anguish, the war might be ending by 2014.
What does this mean for Afghanistan? For Pakistan? For South Asia? And for the rest of the world? The optimistic scenario is that the Afghan government will be powerful enough to resist a complete takeover by the Taliban. Indeed, the government will become cleaner day by day, and the influence of the Taliban and the warlords will decrease as good governance bears fruit. India and Pakistan will act sensibly and not indulge in a proxy war in Afghanistan. Pakistan will initially experience a trust deficit in Afghanistan but when they see no interference in Afghan affairs, the Afghan government will start building a new relationship with Pakistan. On the domestic front, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, or other religious militants who still continue to fight the state of Pakistan, could be fought single-mindedly as the people will no longer consider this as somebody else’s (America’s) war. The confusion which so divides Pakistanis and makes the public so lukewarm about fighting the militants will vanish and a united response to terrorism will emerge. Being so strengthened Pakistan will wipe out religious militancy and turn the leaf in its relations with India. Our policy need not remain India-centred and there would be a new phase of peaceful coexistence in South Asia.
The pessimistic scenario is that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan or at least parts of it adjoining Pakistan, leaving some northern provinces to the warlords. This means going back to square one for most of the country. Girls’ schools will close down again; investors will be frightened away; women rights and human rights will be held in abeyance. Afghanistan will revert to medievalism of a frightening variety yet again and, of course, all shades of religious groups, including al Qaeda, will flourish. For India, it means that all the money spent in reconstruction will go down the drain. Pakistan is mistrustful and annoyed anyway, but then Afghanistan will also be antagonistic. Moreover, with the Taliban sworn enemies of non-Muslims, India will face a rise in militant activities domestically and a hostile country in the neighbourhood.
For Pakistan, while the Taliban regime may appear friendly in certain ways, it will increase its influence in Fata, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and even in the rest of Pakistan. It would be difficult to fight the militants who, if left alone, will establish their sovereignty over parts of Pakistan. And, if fought with, will seek help and safe havens in Afghanistan. Such a battle will be impossible to win and Pakistan might well succumb to a Talibanised or a civilian authoritarian regime backed by the military.
There is a third scenario too — that the Americans withdraw leaving the Afghans fighting. In such a case Pakistan is sure to back the Taliban and India, the Kabul regime. In short the Indo-Pakistan conflict will be expressed through a proxy war in Afghanistan. In this case, too, the Pakistani state would find it difficult to fight the religious militants and their influence would not decrease. In a sense, then, the present scenario of supporting some militants while fighting others will drag on while parts of the country gradually fall to the militants and the people remain confused.
Under the circumstances, Pakistan would do well to talk to the US, India, Iran and Afghanistan in order to make a clear and unambiguous policy against terrorism. Talking to Taliban groups in Afghanistan, like the Americans are doing now, may be an option too, but only to secure our role as a neutral body. What Pakistan should never do is to fight a proxy war with India in Afghanistan and this is precisely what India should also do. What must be guarded is the democratic freedom of Pakistanis and their right not to be controlled by the Taliban or any other religious groups. This means that the Pakistani state should stop playing games in order to continue its proxy war against India and should start looking after Pakistan for a change.
The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History firstname.lastname@example.org