Aug 10

Tilting at the windmills

Posted on Thursday, August 10, 1995 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Foreign minister Sardar Assef Ali is touring Afghanistan these days trying to drum up support for Pakistan’s new “initiative” in that war-torn country. This Saudi-Pak “initiative”, we’re told, is based on a reaffirmation of certain “immutable demographic realities” (IDR) according to which the majority Pashtuns, who have historically ruled Afghanistan, have to be properly accommodated as the future rulers of Afghanistan in the interests of the country’s long-term stability. The plan therefore envisages the ouster of the Tajik regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and its replacement by remnants of the ancien regime of ex-King Zahir Shah. It has the backing of the United States and the United Nations. The only problem is how to go about achieving this goal.

Pakistan’s “involvement” in Afghanistan is as old as the civil war there. Unfortunately, however, Islamabad has always backed the wrong horse. When General Najibullah, a Pashtun, was ruling Kabul, our own General Hameed Gul was desperately pushing Pashtun commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to try and oust him from power. After Gul failed in his “mission”, the UN stepped in and persuaded Najibullah to make way for a “neutral interim government” in 1992. But soon thereafter Hekmatyar sabotaged the UN plan and allowed Burhanuddin Rabbani and commander Ahmad Shah Masood, both Tajiks, to step into the vacuum. This led to a volte-face in Islamabad — Hekmatyar was blithely abandoned and President Rabbani was warmly embraced in 1993. By 1994, however, relations between Rabbani and Pakistan had hit rock bottom because Rabbani wasn’t ready to become a Pakistani stooge. Islamabad then began to cast about for a new option. Enter the Pashtun Taliban, described by Sardar Assef as akin to the French revolutionaries of 1789.

Islamabad’s plan was that the Taliban should “pretend” to march on Hekmatyar’s stronghold in Charyasiab, capture his weapons and drive Rabbani out of Kabul. In the event, however, the Taliban “strategy” proved to be a dismal failure. Hekmatyar fled Kabul and Masood captured his arsenal. Now the Taliban are proving even less amenable to Islamabad than the discredited Hekmatyar. Back to Square-One, Islamabad has dusted ex-King Zahir Shah off the shelves and is angling for an anti-Tajik alliance to get rid of Rabbani.

While Pakistan’s Afghan policy has lurched from left to right, Rabbani has dug his heels in with the support of India, Russia and Iran. In contrast, Pakistan’s IDR line is hopelessly out of step. The bitterly fractured Pashtun elements are proving difficult to unite (Hekmatyar refused to meet Zahir Shah’s envoy Sardar Wali when he visited Peshawar recently). In contrast, the Tajiks and Uzbeks are united under their current leadership.

For the last fifteen years, Pakistan’s Afghan “strategy” has been flawed for two basic but inter-related reasons. First, it has been captive to the personal political ambitions of successive Pakistani leaders and has therefore tended to ignore ground realities. Since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, budding Pakistani politicians have been convinced that the route to “greatness” lies via quick foreign policy achievements. The “conquest of Afghanistan” therefore figures high on their list of personal priorities. General Zia made no secret of his desire to raise the Pakistani flag in Kabul; Mohammad Khan Junego tripped over himself to sign the “historic” Geneva accords; General Hameed Gul fancied himself as the “liberator of Afghanistan” even though he couldn’t get to Jalalabad; Nawaz Sharif hosted the “historic peace accords” of Peshawar and Islamabad (both failed) during 1992-93 and liked to be portrayed as “Fateh Kabul”; now we have Sardar “Metternich” Assef desperately casting about for a prized Afghan feather in his cap.

Second, Pakistani quick-fix strategies for Afghanistan have ignored the dialectic of history as it remoulds the modern nation-state. If post-Soviet Afghanistan was ever propitious for a negotiated IDR solution, it was during Najibullah’s time. But Islamabad screwed up that opportunity because it didn’t want to do business with an “ex-communist”. Since then, much water has flown under the bridge. Instead of reducing the number of Pashtun players in the proposed power-sharing formula, Islamabad has wittingly added the Taliban into the equation. It has also provided an opportunity for other players in the region to make inroads into Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan.

The IDR approach is misplaced. It assumes that (a) there is a state in Afghanistan, and (b) that this nation-state is potentially amenable to a government dominated by the Pashtuns. The facts, however, are different: (a) the Afghan state was destroyed in the long civil war (b) the historic “unity” of the Afghan nation under the Pashtuns has therefore evaporated and been replaced by ethnic sub-nationalisms representing the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns. India, Russia and Iran have recognised this reality, Pakistan hasn’t. It is still flogging the 19th century idea of a unitary, multi-national state long after its world-wide demise in the late 1980s.

If Pakistan wants a “role” in Afghanistan, it has to develop leverage with Rabbani. Insistence on a predominant role for the Pashtuns in a unitary state is ill-placed. Instead, Islamabad should push for a confederal state in Afghanistan which not only conforms to ethnic and regional ground realities but which also shelters us from any spillover of Pashtun nationalism into our territory.