Originally published in The Friday Times
As we landed in Kabul, the place was familiar, unfamiliar. The city reminded me of Quetta for its locale and topography and cultural diversity. But then for many Pakistanis, Afghanistan is a remote figment of imagination. A place which has sent many refugees and where Pakistan directly and indirectly has been part of violent conflict and political upheavals for the last thirty years.
We were part of a delegation, which accompanied the beleaguered Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on his first foreign trip. That this trip was made to Afghanistan is a significant reminder of the importance that Pakistan attaches to the country both for the conventional strategic reasons and perhaps for the existential dilemma that the country faces now with multiple brands of extremists on both sides of the Durand line.
Kabul, once a happening place in the 1970s, is now a sorry reminder of its past. Whereas the recent years’ development efforts are visible through a housing boom and new apartment blocks, one cannot miss out on the mud houses and infrastructure deficits that are a direct result of what the world has done to this country. The world has treated it as an arena of war, conflict and pandering to ‘national’ jingoistic egos.
Be it the Soviet Union, the United States, or the self-appointed guardians of Islamic faith i.e. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, each country has contributed to where the Afghans are today. Little wonder that the younger Afghans have grown up resenting Pakistan – its immediate neighbour that has not once but twice been a party to US’ imperial games in the region. Who said that the Great Game was over? In fact its newest manifestation is the age that we live in and where terms such as ‘energy corridor’, ‘stability’ and ‘regional players’ denote the simple fact that no one is willing to leave the country alone and there might be yet another scramble for influence, leverage and gains. All I hope is that the Afghan youth, its vibrant civil society and skilled diaspora will negotiate with the world not to repeat what has been happening in the past.
The high powered Pakistani contingent was in Kabul to achieve several things: some symbolic, some substantive. The day began with the inauguration of the reconstructed Pakistan embassy in an area that is dominated by non-Pashtuns. The earlier building was destroyed during the time when when Pakistan backed Taliban were at loggerheads over the capture of central power. It is some measure of Pakistan’s diplomatic success – especially the untiring efforts of our Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq – that we are engaging with the leaders of erstwhile Northern Alliance, which has now permutated into several political coalitions. The leader of Afghanistan National Front, Ahmad Zia Massoud, who is also the brother of the slain Ahmad Shah Massoud, was present. Others in attendance at the embassy function included Ustad Mohaqiq, leader of the Hazara community, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and even the deputy of General Dostum. All of these leaders vilified by Pakistan’s Urdu press and their puppet masters indicated that for a change we were doing the right thing: By not reducing Afghanistan to the land of Pashtuns or ‘anti-Pakistan’ or ‘pro-India’ Northern Alliance. Ahmad Wali Massoud, Ahmad Zia Massoud is a soft-spoken man and is charismatic like his brother.
While talking to us he emphasized how Pakistan, not unlike Afghanistan, was a victim of extremism and how the two ought to be working together to counter these worrying trends. In fact most of the people present aired similar views in their informal chit chat. This reminded me of the recent declaration that the anti-Taliban forces had signed and released earlier this year: “…any negotiation with the Taliban can only be acceptable, and therefore effective, if all parties to the conflict are involved in the process. The present form of discussions with the Taliban is flawed, as it excludes anti-Taliban Afghans…The present negotiations with the Taliban fail to take into account the risks, sacrifices and legitimate interests of the Afghans who ended the brutal oppression of all Afghans.”
Symbolism always says a lot. Former Prime Minister Gilani had started the work on the reconstruction of the embassy as a small plaque reminded us while the completion and reopening of the building was being undertaken by his successor, another PPP Prime Minister. Ironic that we are always keen to play down the efforts of the civilians including the Foreign Office in the policy process but at the end of the day even Pakistan’s security establishment needs them. The inauguration ceremony took place in the presence of the all-powerful ISI chief Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam.
As we departed from the high security zone and passed through the empty roads of Kabul (apparently the traffic was closed to ensure that there was a secure passage of the delegation) one could see how Kabul represents a series of protected zones given the onslaught of Taliban who remain powerful in the South and East of the country.
In a few minutes we were entering Karzai’s palace, another fortress where layers of security kept the President of the country safe. This is not all too different from Pakistan where the President’s movements are limited and he operates in a highly protected zone. But the palace with its pine, chinar and other old, rare trees is immensely beautiful. Parts of several buildings have been reconstructed given the recent history but one can see the old and new forms of architecture layered on each other.
We waited as the PM, Foreign Minister, Interior Adviser Rahman Malik and DG ISI met President Karzai, visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron and presented themselves before world cameras. Perhaps all sides want to show that there were engaged and this is what diplomacy is all about. Getting conflicting views laid out on a table and finding a common ground and not letting conflict become a means of ironing out such differences.
Karzai and Raja held detailed parleys while we waited in the annex of the Presidential Palace. I spotted a lovely painting which depicted Afghan musicians at work. The image made me both hopeful and sad. That Afghan were celebrating their culture, the threat of a medieval ideology had to be addressed. Reintegration of Taliban warriors is once again a common challenge for both the countries.
The regal press conference was held under the shade of huge chinar trees and a lovely breeze kept on ruffling the arrangements. Both the leaders were poised and gave a friendly feel to their public appearance. There were tough questions raised from both the sides especially by the AlJazeera correspondent based in Kabul. The latter asked our PM if the civilian government actually controlled the military and ISI. To his credit PM Raja handled this question rather well and displayed his well honed political skills by citing the Pakistani constitution and how it distributed powers. Of course we are miles away from such ideal constitutional governance but to hear this being said in a foreign land made me a little proud. Unlike the Zia and Musharraf eras, which constitute my lived memory, there was a beginning howsoever tenuous the civilian rule might be. Small mercies in a martial state, I told myself.
As we drove back to the airport the posters and iconography around the ‘national’ martyr Ahmad Shah Massoud could not escape my attention. His presence is ubiquitous. How will a 1990s repeat take place under such circumstances? This is what Pakistan needs to reflect and also the Pakistanis who dream of crushing India on Afghan soil to ensure that there is a ‘friendly’ government next door.
It is time that we engage with Afghans as our neighbours, respect their autonomy and also not shy away from talking to our feared adversary India. We cannot stop India from investing in Afghanistan if that is what Afghans want. But we can trade with India and also agree on a common ground. Most importantly, after the repeated tragedies in our Afghan expeditions we should have learned a lesson or two. For instance we may have to focus on the Taliban off-shoots that endanger our way of life at home. Perhaps that should be our top priority.
Raza Rumi is Director Policy & Programs at Jinnah Institute in Islamabad. The views expressed are his own. He is also a consulting editor at TFT. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com