Continuing the Discussion on Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations…

December 29, 2006

Please note: My article on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations (prev. post) is posted on the website of the leading South Asian e-zine Chowk and is receiving many responses.

While some comments stray off topic and many more have degenerated into name-calling, there are some substantial and thoughtful responses that deal with the politico-historical roots of the differences between the two countries, and especially with the state of Pakistan today.

All those who would like to continue the discussion on this subject and who are tired of my slow reponses, go over there and take on the hundreds of prolific readers and writers of that website. On this blog, we are done with that discussion and shall move on to the more interesting things.

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Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations: The Choice Between Alliance and Acrimony

December 23, 2006

One can only imagine the frustration of Afghanistan’s diplomatic corps every time the president lets out -often in his signature impolitic manner- another of his angry and cringe-inducing tirades against Pakistan. The expressed desire of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under its brand new foreign minister Dr. Spanta (a career academic with all the delicate mannerisms that goes with that hollowed profession), has been to establish if not genuinely cordial, then at least the appearances of a normalized, rules-based, and respectable mutual relationship with the government of Pakistan (as indeed with Afghanistan’s other neighbors.) By all indications, the civilian wing of Pakistani officialdom is keen on reciprocating the move towards just such a rapprochement.

It is also clear that apart from an increasingly widening fringe of hardliners -who see in their support for the Taliban an outlet for their own assorted grievances- a majority of Pakistanis are not keen on having their country sandwiched between a nuclear armed India and an unfriendly Afghanistan. They would rather Afghanistan be an ally, or at least a neutral party in the Indo-Pakistani discord over Kashmir -and not necessarily in the form of a Taliban government. In fact, one daresay that most of the ordinary people of Pakistan are not too keen on Kashmiri independence either. As ordinary people anywhere, they would rather their government fix its own house first – and in all fairness, after many exhausting decades of an arms race with India and bloating defense budgets Pakistan can pay some more attention to its own citizens and the services it claims to be providing them.

Likewise, when not prodded on and drummed up by demagogues of their own, the people of Afghanistan would rather forget about the murky status of the Durand line. Indeed those who have calculated the possibility of a further ethnic imbalance that would favor Afghanistan’s historically dominant Pashtun and hence jeopardize the recent political gains made by other ethnic groups of the country would rather the Durand line be granted official and explicit international recognition as a permanent international border through. Given that since World War II international law has regarded most post-colonial borders as sacrosanct (even in circumstances where the de facto status of these borders have been otherwise), just such a formal closing of this open question is the only thing feasible, and indeed desirable.

Risking a venture further into the territory of the devil’s advocate (certainly so in the eyes of many of my compatriots), I would argue that even the Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf, often vilified as condoning and supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, is not guilty of so many simple-minded accusations levied against him. For reasons personal, political, and ideological, the president of Pakistan is at heart a liberal person and would not tolerate the Pakistani society’s slide towards Talibanization and religious fundamentalism if he had the powers to stop it. Indeed, as Robert Kaplan has pointed out, General Musharraf is a “devotee of Turkey’s progressive founder, Musatafa Kemal Ataturk,” and “by all accounts the most liberal Pakistani ruler in decades.” As is clear from his recent memoir, and from his many interviews and statements, the Pakistani president is all too keenly aware of the dangers posed to the Pakistani state and society by the increasing religious fundamentalism and the rising ethno-nationalism of the border regions, exacerbated by the instability in Afghanistan. On that matter, he does not need the government of Afghanistan to dutifully remind him of the stakes.

Instead, a more plausible explanation for General Pervez Musharraf’s having become the singular target of blames and pointed fingers lay in Pakistan’s domestic politics – and in bad PR. Domestically, General Musharraf is pressed from both sides of Pakistan’s peculiar political spectrum. On the one hand, there are the religious fundamentalists who despise his liberal beliefs and US-friendly policies, and on the other, the assorted “democratic” forces who see him as the obstacle to their own rule over Pakistan. This latter group also enjoys a measures of support in the wider world by casting the general as a military dictator and an obstacle to Pakistani democracy – thus contributing to the bad PR factor. Similarly, Afghanistan’s criticism of General Musharraf can be better explained in the light of a range of domestic factors which we will discuss momentarily.

Whither, then, lay the roots of so much acrimony? And how can the differences be settled so that a much needed partnership is formed against the elements that are threatening both countries?

Just as it takes two to tango, so too the Attan* of disharmony between Afghanistan and Pakistan is danced by two willing and interested parties. On the Pakistani side, the partner is the intelligence arm of Pakistan’s security establishment. As one writer has put it, Pakistan’s intelligence establishment constitutes “a state within a state, within a state,” with the Pakistani army being the second of these concentric states. One of the more storied intelligence agencies in the whole world, Pakistan’s intelligence agency was extensively used -and in the process, strengthened- during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By necessity, it was also given a measure of free reign over intelligence and security matters, and as Pakistan was not infrequently ruled by military dictators, the agency was relatively free of civilian oversight and democratic accountability for long periods. By 1990s the agency was strong enough to supplant or support a government of its own choosing in Afghanistan, and there is reliable evidence of its extensive role in supporting the growth and the remarkable military successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Add to this the effects of the Pakistani security establishment’s strategic doctrine favoring the use of Afghanistan as a friendly territory to fall back on during a possible military (nuclear?) confrontation with India, summed up in the code word “Strategic Depth.”

Because of these reasons, the Pakistani intelligence establishment in particular, and the non-civilian wing of Pakistani government in general see the recent developments in Afghanistan as a blow to their security and strategic interests, and are unwilling to relinquish all influence in Afghanistan, and especially among the dominant forces in the border areas. Even at times when these calculations run into loggerhead with the civilian leadership of Pakistan and the balancing act that the president must perform to save Pakistan’s face and its interests in dealings with the rest of the world, the military-intelligence establishment is defiant and gets its own way. Alarmingly, over the past few years there has been an increase in popular support in the border regions and among the growing religious fundamentalist elements for the intelligence community’s position concerning Afghanistan. This alliance has resulted from an alignment of interests, with both the religious fundamentalists and the military-intelligence strategists suffering a setback in Afghanistan with the fall of the Taliban. Now that they have joined forces, it is increasingly difficult from General Musharraf to effectively deal with either -something he realizes he must do to save his government, and as it appears, his own life.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s antagonists in Afghanistan come from a variety of backgrounds, all represented in the current government of Afghanistan. Until they held the helm of power, the Northern Alliance forces (in particular the dominant faction of Massoud’s supporters) were bitterly opposed to Pakistan, in which it saw a state ally of its former Taliban adversary. Even when their influence was moderated following the 2004 presidential elections (giving Karzai a more open hand to clean house) the official suspicion of Pakistan persisted, and continues to this day.

But suspicion of Pakistan by Afghanistan’s government is not a recent phenomenon and dates farther back than Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. Ever since Pakistan’s creation, and culminating in Daud’s premiership, the underlying foreign policy thrust of successive governments of Afghanistan has been to deal with Pakistan with varying degrees of suspicion, contempt, or outright support for the “Pashtunistan” cause. Whether monarchy, republic, communist rule, or Islamic Emirate, all governments of Afghanistan have managed to trump even their most universalist ideologies to pick their fight with Pakistan over what seems the latter’s original sin of having a large Pashtun population outside of Afghanistan – thanks to the British colonial legacy. The only reason the status of the Durand line is even an question among Afghanistan’s population today is because of half a century’s official drumming up of the issue on part of Afghanistan’s governments. Over time, the successive governments of Afghanistan have managed to effectively reverse the process that is otherwise the norm in the history of international relations: that is, they have successfully thrown open to doubt and questioning (at least among the populace) the status of a de facto and de jure international border, whereas the norm is that de facto borders over time gain de jure legitimacy. The inertia of this dogmatic policy line of previous governments is felt in the current government of Afghanistan’s dealings with Pakistan. In turn, this inertia gives momentum to a similar inertia on the Pakistani side, of having to fend off Afghanistan’s border claims even if by destabilizing that country itself.

Apart from this, the recent spike in government of Afghanistan’s intense criticism of Pakistan can be explained in the light of the intractability of Afghanistan’s insurgency problem and the government’s inability to contain, or put an end to the resurgence of the Taliban in a way that is satisfactory both to the people of Afghanistan and the international community. In other words, the recent bouts of blaming Pakistan is more a blame game than anything else, symptomatic of periods of unsatisfactory performance and the need to rationalize.

What both the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan fail to appreciate is that while they are undermining each other and assigning responsibility for the instability, they are playing directly into the hands of those elements who benefit from the thorny relations at the expense of both countries’ interests, and who are the real sources of instability. The truth of the matter is that Musharraf government needs not less, but more US support to enable him to effectively contain Pakistan’s runaway intelligence community and tackle the increasing radicalization of Pakistani society. Musharraf may be a military general, but he is not a military ruler, and he is opposed to the elements and trends that are jeopardizing the social and political development of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. While he should be held accountable to previous commitments of restoring democracy to Pakistan, in the interim he needs greater international support and solidarity in the face of forces that threaten, as he said in his first address after taking power “the very foundations of the federation of Pakistan.” Increased marginalization by the international community would indeed limit his options and force him to make deals with those elements that he is opposed on principle -for instance the recent ill-thought accord and the military pullback from the Waziristan region.

Musharraf is cornered into making these concessions and dealing with the enemy because, as he has often said, he does not have a willing partner in the government of Afghanistan to jointly coordinate policy and uproot the destabilizing forces from the border areas. Both the US and Afghanistan’s governments should not be surprised to see no positive outcomes from further pressurizing Musharraf’s government to deal with the problem of insurgency. For the US and Afghanistan governments to demand of Musharraf to contain the Taliban and control Pakistani intelligence community’s support for them is reminiscent of when the US and Israeli governments were pressing Arafat to control the runaway elements of the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements. Both men’s hands are tied, and both have to walk their domestic political tightrope.

On the Afghanistan side, as made clear in various statements (all markedly different in tone and substance from the president’s offhand pronouncements) the foreign affairs and diplomatic apparatus of Afghanistan’s government would like to interact with Pakistan as a partner rather than an adversary and join forces to deal with the insurgency problem. In fact, save for the nascent security establishment and the presidency, each weighed down by the expectations to deliver, and bound by the inertia of previous Afghanistan governments’ Durand policy, significant parts of Afghanistan’s populace and its government are keen to open a new chapter in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.

Dealing with Pakistan, and with Afghanistan’s other neighbors, is the domain of Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs. The formation of new and constructive mutual relationships with its neighbors, and that of a novel doctrine of foreign and international relationships for Afghanistan that serves its interests in a different international environment seems to be currently sabotaged by those who are glad to score political points. While it is true that the composition of the cabinet is the president’s prerogative, once sworn in, the minister of foreign affairs and his staff serve as much at the pleasure of the president as in the interests of the whole country. To that end, the professional diplomatic corps needs to be given greater operating room and be freed from the political shackles that prevents it from doing precisely this.

With a presumptive “spring offensive” by the Taliban just months away, and with the lessons of the past summer’s events still fresh, it is clear that the governments of the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States need to have a frank and up-front discussion about their mutual concerns and their shared interests. In their own right, the destabilizing forces have successfully aligned their interests and are operating in tandem. To turn around the setbacks of spring and summer of 2006 for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by extension for the US interests in the region, the roots of mutual suspicion need to be addressed and a new chapter in Afghanistan-Pakistan relationships opened. Without this, the prospects for both countries appear grimmer than ever.

*Attan is the traditional group dance among the Pashtun.


December 22, 2006

Moral indignation is outraged only when presented with an affront to its most parochial sentiments.

Darfur has become an accepted fact of our history, and only occasionally anymore animates the conversations of our latte drinking liberals. Civilian death tolls from Iraq are not seen as collateral damage or civilian casualties anymore, but as routinuous and vaguely tragic byproducts of the inevitable march forward of history. We are all on some level or another guilty of regularly misconstruing, multiplying, misinterpreting, misquoting, misapporpriating, minimizing, or maiming facts in a manner and medium of our own choosing and convenience.

The atrocities that take place in the name of journalism are fitting reflections of our own laxities and sliding standards. Ditto the vagaries that take places in the entertainment industry’s portrayal of people and places. Most of the time, we just let them slide by.

Except, of course, when they engage our most primate and parochial concerns. Then we must protest not only the misrepresentation itself, but the appalling worldwide silence. The same silence, incidentally, that we would be guilty of had we ourselves not been the object, but the audience.

***

I have not seen the latest bollywood output, Kabul Express. I do not do bollywood anymore. And I am not shocked that it has gotten it all wrong when it comes to the portrayal of the Hazara of Afghanistan. I am, however, mildly surprised at the way so many people who have been emailing me this morning have been holding the Indian movie industry to apparently reverential standards of factuality and truth – affirming, through protesting this latest anomaly, that on all previous occasions it had our collective tacit approval.

***

This is but just one incident. More generally, and more seriously, I want to ask myself: What is one, who tries hard to be a person of conscience, to do? One feels like withdrawing. And reading Camus. And sulking. And keeping aloof and above all of it. But one has no choice: one is in this.

One feels bad for the gradual decay eating away at one’s moral soul. And before soon, one will stop noticing it altogether.

***

And so: Really, what the hell were Indian filmmakers thinking?! They should not be able to get away with this!!


The Business of Blogging

December 21, 2006

Lost in a medley of graduate school applications, the footwork of organizing a talk in DC by a visitig MP from Afghanistan, and playing out my fantasies of global domination through my new Civilizations-III PC game, I have missed a very exciting week of blogging on Afghanistan.

But then I also believe that all bloggers ought to occasionally wrest themselves away from the business of blogging, or they will risk quality and seriousness. Just as a casual attitude about blogging is often helpful in a world of real-time news and information, and helps to keep the ball rolling and the blog updated, too much of this attitude can also end up trivializing otherwise important issues.

At any rate, bloggers should remind themselves of the sanctity of the craft of writing at all times.

While, for instance, Karzai’s recent tirades against Pakistan definitely invited commentary, I frankly was not in a position to provide serious commentary, and I felt that commenting anyway would be disingenuous and somehow insulting to the imaginary audience of Safrang. Of course I could merely post a link to the news article itself, but then I respect myself more than to just relay information anyone can get anyways. So I had to let the whole thing incubate for a while, and yes, I had to play Civilizations-III for hours on end.

On an ending note, as far as blogging is concerned, I recommend reading a recent Op-Ed in the WSJ, titled “The Blog Mob.” The tagline reads: “written by fools to be read by imbeciles,” attributed to Joseph Conrad who was speaking many years before about newspapers! Here is an excerpt:

The way we write affects both style and substance… In this aspect, journalism as practiced via blog appears to be a change for the worse. That is, the inferiority of the medium is rooted in its new, distinctive literary form. Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope–though these things are not meant for public consumption. The reason for a blog’s being is: Here’s my opinion, right now.

The right now is partially a function of technology, which makes instantaneity possible, and also a function of a culture that valorizes the up-to-the-minute above all else. But there is no inherent virtue to instantaneity. Traditional daily reporting–the news–already rushes ahead at a pretty good clip, breakneck even, and suffers for it. On the Internet all this is accelerated.

The blogs must be timely if they are to influence politics. This element–here’s my opinion–is necessarily modified and partly determined by the right now. Instant response, with not even a day of delay, impairs rigor. It is also a coagulant for orthodoxies. We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought–instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition. The participatory Internet, in combination with the hyperlink, which allows sites to interrelate, appears to encourage mobs and mob behavior.


Case in Point – Self Delusion about the Taliban

December 9, 2006

This is what I mean when I say that people are in denial and self-delusion about the Taliban (read previous post):

“I am absolutely convinced that if we allowed Afghanistan to fall back into Taliban rule it would become a failed state again and a black hole for terrorism training,”(NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop) Scheffer told the Daily Telegraph last week.

Thank god we are “absolutely convinced” of that, because if not, it seems that Afghanistan’s reversion back to Taliban is an actual option weighed with some seriousness by NATO’s Secretary General. And the only thing that makes Taliban unattractive to him is that they do a bad job in keeping a functional state. Otherwise, well, they are not Jeffersonian republicans, or ardent feminists for that matter, but they are… all right… I guess.

Get real, people!

(Incidentally, this is the sort of thing that makes one nostalgic about the moral clarity and no-compromise attitude of the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick in dealing with tyrants and totalitarians.) 


A Refresher on the Taliban

December 9, 2006

It is often easy to lose sight of the stakes in Afghanistan or to forget the worldview and the determination of those bent on destroying it even more thoroughly. The likes of Sibghatullah Mujaddadi and others in the current Afghan government (going all the way up to the president himself) often muse about granting a general amnesty to the Taliban and having them rejoin the political process. History is often contentious in Afghanistan, and even when it is not, it can be easily distorted and forgotten -even history as recent as the yesteryear’s barbarism and the draconian laws that the Taliban had imposed on the country’s people.

Lest we forget that history too soon, the Taliban are still here to refresh our minds. In some macabre fashion they probably deserve our thanks for their solemn reminders of how they would run (and did run) Afghanistan, if they were to control it in a totalitarian fashion once again.

To all those who say that the Taliban too are “sons of Afghanistan” and are not as bad as they are depicted, lo and behold:

“GHWANDO, Afghanistan: Following up on a death threat, Taliban militants broke into a house where two teachers lived and shot dead five family members in eastern Afghanistan, bringing to 20 the number of educators killed in attacks this year…(meanwhile, 128 schools have been burned down this year alone.)

The five family members were killed overnight in the eastern province of Kunar after gunmen climbed over the home’s high outer wall using a ladder they had brought with them…A grandmother, a mother and two daughters, who were teachers, were killed… A 20-year-old grandson was also killed and a younger grandson injured in the attack in a village in Narang district.”  (continue)


RIP Mother Figure of Neoconservatism

December 8, 2006

If Irving Kristol is the father of the movement that seems so out of shape these days (plagued as it is by desertions,) the late Jeane J. Kirkpatrick would be the closest person to a mother figure.

She died yesterday. Color me a wannabe neocon, but I had to post this in memoriam.

The only thing that would trouble me, however, is that the insufferable fool that is Glenn Beck would also mourn her death on his show tonight, and I cannot stand the thought of being on the same side with him. I can only take relief in the thought that Mr. Beck has no idea about what Ambassador Kirkpatrick stood for and what intellectual weight she lent to the neoconservative movement and US leadership in the world. To his horror, she also said that she is a “lifelong democrat.”

Take note Zal, you have big shoes to fill (read my previous post.)

In an attempt to tie this in with Afghanistan I will say this: just as she protested US foreign policy during the Carter era, had she been in office in the early 1990s, she would have not approved of Clinton administration’s disengagement from Afghanistan that utlimately landed it in the Taliban era chaos. And Taliban, using her famous categories of “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism,” would have surely qualified for the latter, which she argued should be opposed by any means.