Resisting the Taliban Menace – II

This was originally published by Daily Times as my weekly column BAAGHI on Monday October 3, 2011. First part of this article, published by the same paper on September 26, 2011, can be seen here.

While these lines are being written, hundreds of Afghans are rallying on the streets of Kabul to condemn last week’s shelling of Afghan border towns by the Pakistan Army and assassination of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, which Afghan officials believe was a joint plot of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan Taliban. Admiral Mike Mullen’s statement before the Congress Armed Forces Committee, that the Haqqani network was a ‘veritable arm’ of ISI, upped the ante in already tense US-Pak relations.

After Pakistan’s declaration in an All-Parties Conference (APC) to cool down the emotions against the US but not to act against the Taliban in North Waziristan, the week ended with Afghan President Karzai’s abandonment of dialogue with the Taliban and subsequent announcement of the schedule of his visit to India — an ultimate itch-powder for Pakistan’s establishment.

The canvas in Afghanistan so far is loud and clear about shrinking options for Pakistan if the latter does not review its policy and ground it in the region’s emerging realities. While both our strategic ally the US and strategic neighbour Afghanistan are pressing Pakistan’s military establishment to let go of the Haqqanis in favour of lasting peace in the region, Pakistan remains adamant to not move into North Waziristan while making a parallel assertion that the Haqqanis are not based in Pakistan.

The protagonists of the hackneyed ‘legitimate interests’ of Pakistan believe that antagonising the Haqqanis would bring catastrophe to Pakistan. Whether it comes from the fear of the Haqqani terror network or as a strategy to keep influence in post-2014 Afghanistan, it seems largely faulty. The Haqqani network, which can be tagged as the most ‘irreconcilable’ faction of insurgents based on their track record in peace negotiations that started as early as 2003-4 under the loosely constituted peace council headed by Professor Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, should neither be allowed to challenge the state’s writ in Pakistan’s Waziristan region nor should it be viewed as a convincing option for deepening Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.

The argument that the exclusion of the Pakhtun Taliban from the future power set-up would have a negative effect on Pakistan’s Pakhtun population is an extremely wrong strategic calculation. Amid the making of lashkars (private militias) put together by Pakistani Pakhtuns against the Taliban, and emerging anti-Taliban uprisings in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Uruzgan by Pakhtun elders, it is foolish to portray the Taliban as Pakhtun representatives. In any case, continuing with the ethnic divisiveness in Afghanistan will further fan the internecine feuds and civil war, which would travel back to Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line in no time.

The establishment on our side is just not ready to even listen to the ethical side of supporting the militant Haqqani network while insisting on a poorly defined ‘national interest’. There exists little ethical reason to patronise a militant group to rule or have a power share in the future of Afghanistan when the world has already witnessed the gruesome violations of human rights under them throughout the late 1990s. When women died of minor diseases because they were not allowed to be treated by male doctors, men were flogged and killed for shaving beards, hundreds of Shias were killed en masse and non-Pakhtun minorities were persecuted mercilessly, it could hardly be termed as ‘peaceful’ times as many Pakistani defenders of the Taliban claim. That the Taliban brought order, curbed corruption and stopped drug trafficking by controlling poppy cultivation is also debatable. There was a decree by Mullah Omar in probably 1998 that the drug trade was lawful if the circumstances called for it, which must be the basis of massive poppy cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas in southern Afghanistan even today.

On the other hand, if the Haqqani network is gotten rid of, we would not be losing much even in terms of the notorious strategic depth. Considering that the Taliban do not hold a popular support back home, they would have little to offer to Pakistan even if they come to power. The recent claim of Pakistan’s army chief in the APC last week that the Haqqanis have their influence in 5-7 Afghan provinces needs to be seen in a context. The Haqqanis’ activities have been increased in these provinces over the past two years especially because of various factors rooted in Afghanistan’s local and national politics.

The Ghilzai population in these areas came under Taliban influence due to tribal ties to the Taliban’s predominantly Ghilzai leadership as against their traditional rivals, the Durrani Pakhtuns, who have been wielding political power since centuries. Also, probably as an election strategy, President Karzai had been fanning anti-foreigner (read anti-American and anti-Pakistani) sentiment in these regions mainly to win the Ghilzai vote. Under his initiative of Programme Takhim-e-Solh (PTS) or the strengthening of peace programme, efforts were made to get most of the rank and file of the insurgents to isolate the ‘irreconcilables’ among the Taliban. Initially making some good inroads inside insurgent networks, the PTS went terribly wrong when President Karzai’s election team tried to use it to discredit electoral opponents. Many of his opponents, who were previously ready to be a part of an active democratic set-up under a progressive constitution of Afghanistan, turned to the Taliban.

There is much more to the politics of ‘peace negotiations’ within Afghanistan, which cannot be discussed here in detail for want of space. For now, it is important to emphasise that resisting the Taliban and the Haqqani network is the only viable option left for Pakistan, following which we can still make up for most of the damage done to our relationship with not only the US but Afghanistan and, in fact, India too.

No Haqqanis mean better positioning in Washington, better prospects in Afghanistan pre- and post-2014, more engagement with non-Pakhtun minorities meaning greater outreach within Afghan society, nullifying Indian influence by commitment to Afghan development rather than patronising insurgency/militancy, better trade and other economic benefits by reaching out to Central Asian states through a peaceful Afghanistan, stronger ties with bordering Iran and India by being a prosperous trading corridor, becoming a more peaceful country itself and most of all, emerging as a responsible nation of 180 million people who stand for human rights, peace and moderation rather than a medieval, expansionist, rogue mass of people.

The defence of the Pakistani people from the militant Haqqani network in the wake of a possible blowback from the Taliban after a crackdown should be taken as shared responsibility by investing in counter-terrorism strategies and tactics. Pakistan’s military establishment needs to leave strategic policy-making to the civilian government, which should in turn, rely on their diplomatic skills to make any government in Afghanistan a Pakistan-friendly government rather than manipulating Afghanistan’s power politics and bringing up a hand-picked puppet government. After all, we are ghairtamand (honourable) enough to resist such an arrangement for our country, so why impose it on the Afghans? We love our sovereignty; how about respecting others’ sovereignty as well?