Pakistan will always be relevant

The leaders of 28 countries put their heads together to think of a way out of the »»

The leaders of 28 countries put their heads together to think of a way out of the Afghan quandary at a recently held NATO summit in Chicago. The reality is the international community stands exhausted by more than a decade of war in Afghanistan.

With casualties on both sides and thousands of innocent Afghans killed, the war doesn't seem to be reaching any conclusive end. The half-hearted efforts by the international community have left Afghanistan in complete disarray. Afghans are wary of this war and the miseries it has brought upon them. With an inefficient and corrupt Afghan government, poor governance, a dismal security situation and a poor economy, the success of any quick fixes seems improbable.

The security equation is complicated by the heightened power of the warlords in Afghanistan. The warlords, in collusion with the government and sometimes being directly part of the government, continue to tyrannize people. If not for these warlords and their rampage, the Taliban would have been totally powerless. Back in the 1990s when the Taliban took over Kabul and much of Afghanistan, its success had more to do with the disenchantment of common Afghans with the warlords and less with the Taliban's God-forsaken ideology. Now it is déjà vu all over again. The ruthlessness of warlords has put the Afghans into the hands of the Taliban and strengthened them.

The incidents of the killing of NATO troops by their Afghan compatriots have increased recently, making things more complicated. This reflects the lack of trust Afghans feel towards the foreign forces. Professor Azmat Hayat Khan, former vice chancellor of Peshawar University in Pakistan and an expert on Afghanistan and Central Asia, singles out distrust as the most important factor in the current situation. He believes that distrust and misunderstandings debar any meaningful development in Afghanistan. The distrust factor does not remain limited to what Afghans feel toward foreign forces, it perpetuates ad infinitum -- between the Afghan people and the Afghan government, between the ethnic groups within Afghanistan and between regional countries and the United States/NATO. Dr. Hayat's insights were based on a field study he conducted.

Part of the Afghan debacle is also the absence of a regional approach. The immediate neighbors of Afghanistan have much at stake lest the instability in Afghanistan cross over into their countries. The continued presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran is burdensome and the arrival of more once NATO withdraws and chaos engulfs Afghanistan continues to worry them.

No outside country is affected more by the conflict in Afghanistan than Pakistan. Pakistan was invited at the last minute to the NATO summit. Partly explaining this last-minute invitation was speculation going around that Pakistan might be kept out of any Afghan solution. The international community is at the risk of making a grave mistake. Pakistan is part of the solution. The ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan run deep.

Notwithstanding the geographical proximity and the demographic commonality, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan are knotted together in a solid bond of affiliation. Afghans call Pakistan their second home. After the Afghan-Soviet war, 3 million Afghans took refuge in Pakistan. Over three long decades, a whole generation of Afghans were born, raised and educated in Pakistan. There was no restriction on the movement of Afghan people within Pakistan, neither in business nor in education. Many of these Afghans have been assimilated into Pakistani society.

Dr. Hayat says the largest number of foreign professionals and educated people in Afghanistan comes from Pakistan. Currently, thousands of Afghan refugees are studying in Pakistan's universities. Two million Afghans continue to live in Pakistan. Many Afghans have moved back to their homeland but have left their families behind in Pakistan. This is Pakistan's biggest investment in Afghanistan and this has not come without a price. It was not easy playing host to millions of Afghans: At one time there were more than 5 million Afghans living in Pakistan. If the international community thinks it is easy to cut the umbilical cord of millions of Afghans, it is sadly mistaken.

A Western-tailored approach has not worked and will not do so in the future. There is a need to understand the working of Afghan society and find an Afghan-oriented solution. Afghan society is a tribal society and the rule of any one tribe or ethnicity will not be acceptable to the rest, highlighting the need for a broad-based government there. The regional perspective that has largely been ignored must be pursued. Many ethnic communities in Afghanistan extend beyond Afghan borders into the neighboring countries. These cultural similarities and this geographical proximity demand a different approach, one that takes care of the legitimate concerns of neighboring countries. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in everybody's best interests and, most importantly, in Pakistan's best interests.

Maria Syed is a writer and works for the Islamabad Policy Research Institute in Pakistan. [email protected]

2012-05-30

Op-Ed