Liberalization of Strategic Depth – II

It originally appeared in Daily Times on Monday September 19, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI. Its first part, appeared on Monday September 12, 2011 in same paper, could be seen here.

The defenders of the report, launched jointly by the Jinnah Institute (JI) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on a possible ‘Afghan endgame’, are irked by critics’ accusation of it protecting the ages-old worn-out ‘strategic depth’ notion. This ingenuous defence detracts from important issues while extenuating a faulty ‘strategic depth’ notion. The defenders present the report’s suggestion to include the Quetta Shura Taliban in the peace process as a globally accepted principle. One must concur that the report has triggered an interesting debate in the media. If taken personally, the criticism would not be able to serve the very purpose of the report: initiate an informed debate on the issue.

While the discussion process in the making of the JI-USIP report might be inclusive as claimed (although debatable), the finished product does not package the information for its readers to get a full picture of ‘diverse’ viewpoints. Exclusion of Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists might not be deliberate, but still gives an incomplete picture. Or does it say that the foreign policy elite cannot have Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists? Not to forget here that most of the Pakhtun nationalists are not so pro-Taliban and have been fighting against them to clear Pakistani territory of their presence. It is astonishing to see how the ‘national interest’ is attached to ‘strategic depth’ and ‘Taliban as Pakhtun’ arguments, which has now permeated deep down the thought process of even the progressive and liberal ‘elite’. An ardent defender of the report passionately justified ‘strategic depth’ and even the Afghan jihad, which he thinks was unavoidable when a ‘godless’ USSR was about to attack Pakistan for warm waters. Another defensive argument (that the report is ‘descriptive, not prescriptive’) gets refuted by the report itself, which carries an elaborate section on the way forward for ‘key countries’. The report, it appears, is probably suffering more because of the mindless and personalised defence rather than what it explicitly carries. Needless to say a ‘defence on demand’ hardly helps, it rather compromises the credibility of the entire exercise.

To be fair, some parts of the report do make loud admissions of some state follies that have been regularly questioned by many dissenting voices in Pakistan. For example, the report admits that the official decision-making is affected by a monolithic viewpoint without paying attention to competing narratives (page 16, para 1). Some other admissions are equally noteworthy: Pakistan has lost its goodwill among Afghans due to its security-centric approach (page 20, para 4); and that Pakistan is widely reviled and mistrusted in Kabul while countries like India are viewed positively (ibid). Deciphering this, it would be safe to say that the countries that made inroads in Afghanistan through respecting their sovereignty and focusing on trade and development partnerships gained more than we could. This happened despite a major Pakhtun population, which the participants still seem to think is represented by the Taliban who are also supposedly pro-Pakistan. Since we are all ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis, a little denial is justified. So the report had to say that Afghan resentment is actually confined to non-Pakhtun areas and that the international media is unnecessarily hypersensitive about this resentment.

Contrary to the views of the participants, our Pakhtun friends from Afghanistan and Pakistan think otherwise. One is inclined to thus take the observations of the participants with a pinch of salt. The fact is that the bitterness towards Pakistan, to put it mildly, runs deep amongst the Afghan people irrespective of their ethnicity. Pakhtuns’ sentiments for us are not that different from non-Pakhtun minorities, as is claimed by the worthy participants.

Among the Pakhtun people, Pakhtunwali (the Pakhtun code of conduct) has central importance under which protection of namus (family, property and homeland) is the measure of one’s izzat (honour). Any interference by an outsider in these matters and acceptance of this interference as such, amounts to be beghairati (cowardice), which is unacceptable in Pakhtunwali. Even the Taliban could not take it (read Mullah Zaeef’s book, My Life with the Taliban). We have been, undeniably, using religion as a tool to interfere in the internal matters of the Afghans and to control them while putting their Qawmi Taroon (tribal binding) at a secondary position. The importance of qawm (ethnic identity in the Pakhtun context) among the Pakhtuns is evident from Wali Khan’s famous statement, now a popular proverb, “I am Muslim for 1,400 years but I am Pakhtun for 6,000 years.” This simple fact seems to be beyond our ‘elite’ who are bent upon taking the Taliban as an icon of Pakhtun nationalism. The Taliban, just to remind, have been an object of strong criticism from Pakhtun nationalists for sacrificing Afghan culture at the altar of Arabisation.

Despite some of these flawed positions, the report indirectly indicates a change in overall perception of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan. As per the report, the participants are “foreign policy community”, meaning they have/had influence on policy making in Pakistan. One can deduce that one, the ‘elite’ represents a failed policy regime of the past and two, a gradual thawing of the otherwise rigid stance of Pakistan’s security establishment might be in the offing. For example, the report does recognise that Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth was a result of the security establishment’s paranoia about India’s role in Afghanistan. It advocates a “less overbearing approach” (page 21, para 1) in Afghanistan, which could “retain strong goodwill among Afghan citizens, both Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun”. It would, the report reminds, highlight “Pakistan’s indispensability”. Well! Looks like our ‘elite’ take Afghanistan as a beautiful young maid who has to always trust the indispensability of her macho saviour who would never allow her to be with anyone else.

The report recognises the importance of the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura Taliban (not very long ago, no one wanted to even accept such things exist). In agreement with many in the US security establishment and their European counterparts alongside counterterrorism experts like David Kilcullen, the report advocates a seat for the Afghan Taliban at the negotiating table. Despite mildly criticising Pakistan’s past policy of relying on the Taliban and religious sentiment for gaining influence in Afghanistan, the elite insist on including these terrorists and war criminals in the future set-up. Their reason is the good old proclamation that the Taliban’s exclusion from the power set-up would upset the Pakhtuns on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Whether they are demeaning the Pakhtuns by making the Taliban their representatives or they are legitimising the Taliban by making them the rightful candidates of power in Afghanistan, is anyone’s guess.

While recognising India’s role in Afghanistan’s future by adding a little section for India in the recommendations chapter, the report’s emphasis upon transparency in Indian interventions as well as calling for a “regular exchange of a fact-sheet on India’s presence and actions in Afghanistan” (page 47, para 4) but not vice versa, is conspicuous by its mundanity. It is, however, addressed in the next sentence by adding that there was a call for “…even to address Indian concerns about anti-India militants based in Pakistan”. Who says our elite are not magnanimous?

Just like old wine in a new bottle, this liberal stamp on strategic depth looks like filming the ‘Ten Commandments’ on the sets of ‘Matrix’. Beware before inhaling deep, the rose petal has some chilli flakes.