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Caught in the Af-Pak Quagmire

Since the tragic events of 9/11, the western world in general and the liberal, modernist intellectuals in the Muslim world have been trying to understand the causes of extremism. If we are able to understand fully the reasons for the emergence of violent, extremist groups with the agenda of capturing the soul of Muslims societies, the task of taking remedial measures will be a lot easier.

Not that the policymakers who have conducted security and foreign affairs of the state and academics from different disciplines of human sciences have not tried to do so. Rather, it is the complex social reality and the involvement of many local, regional and foreign actors in the making of the violent mindset that makes our understanding of the conflict incomplete and sometimes subjective.

Riaz Mohammad Khan, a distinguished career diplomat and an author of two books on Afghanistan, doesn’t claim to have found conclusive answers to the larger questions of extremism and conflict in the region in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity. In a modest tone, he wishes to participate in the intellectual debate and register his views. Writing this book is important for two reasons. Firstly, Ambassador Khan has personally and intimately participated in the formulation of Pakistan’s position on a wide range of issues relating to Afghanistan. Naturally, the world community and many of us in Pakistan would be interested in hearing from people like him who have been insiders. Secondly and more importantly, as Pakistan is one of the countries most affected by more than 30 years of conflict in Afghanistan, its citizens and intellectuals must make a contribution to understanding the conflict. There is an obligation to be intellectually present in the debates and controversies, and in the generation of ideas about how we can recover from the extremist and violent mindset.

This is an urgent task. Insiders’ view of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the conditions that have produced the conflict are perhaps more important than of those outsiders who study these issues from their secluded desks. This is not a judgement on the quality of scholarship of either category, but a comment on the importance of the medium of books to exchange ideas and articulate alternative perspectives.

The contents of the book can be divided into three parts according to the way it has been organised. The first part of the book is a detailed analysis of the developments in Afghanistan leading to the emergence of the Taliban. Most of the facts about the rise of the Taliban are well-known. What this book contributes to our knowledge is mere confirmation by an insider in the Pakistan Foreign Office of the security concerns, regional interests and limited options that prompted Pakistan to support the Taliban. Before betting on the Taliban, Pakistan had tried every possible means to keep the Mujahiden factions unified and focussed on cooperation to ensure stability and peace in Afghanistan. The author argues with a lot of evidence how Pakistan lost influence over the Mujahideen organisations after the fall of the Najibullah regime — their struggle for power and personal rivalries were just too strong. In this struggle they looked towards outside supporters and fashioned their own respective foreign and security policies. That brought in regional countries into the Afghan power game — Pakistan being just one of them. The result was political fragmentation of Afghanistan and the emergence of warlords controlling parcels of the country.

Khan argues that two major objectives guided Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan — “friendly government” and “strategic depth” — objectives he considers “dubious and impractical”. Ideas like these also make Afghans suspicious of Pakistan’s intentions, as they appear to be offensive, patronising and interventionist. He argues for an alternative approach, working bilaterally towards “normal friendly relations” and stability in Afghanistan that will promote Pakistan’s interests better than what he considers “confused and warped thinking” such as strategic depth.

These are serious comments, which demonstrate two different approaches on regional foreign policy — one adopted by the Foreign Office and the other by the security establishment of Pakistan.

The book presents a nuanced and insightful view on the emergence of the Taliban. Khan is right in saying that it was a “phenomenon waiting to happen” because of the ten-year Afghan-Soviet war and then five years of civil war among the Afghan groups. There are other factors that created an enabling environment — Islamisation by General Ziaul Haq, Afghan jihad, proliferation of madrassas, and the spread of the Deobandi and Wahabi creed. But then, it was a chaotic security situation in the country created by the withering of the Afghan state and the emergence of too many centres of power controlled by greedy, aggressive and self-serving warlords that made the Taliban a popular movement. After quick successive victories they captured Kabul. Their goals also changed from establishing security and order to transforming the country into a “pure Islamic state”.

Khan provides a balanced view of this development. The Taliban are often maligned for their treatment of women, minorities and opponents while the inhuman treatment meted out to them by their foes from the Northern Front, which comprised ethnic minorities, is ignored. Khan gives a brief account of how thousands of Taliban were trapped, captured and brutally murdered in Mazar-i-Sharif. The civil war in Afghanistan was in my view motivated by ethnic, power factors and supported by
outside powers — Iran, India, Russia and Pakistan. The residual social and political effects of this brutal and bloody conflict may continue to haunt Afghanistan’s and the block’s ethnic reconciliation.

The world at large ignored the Taliban regime — a sort of social rejection by the international community for their primitive image and discriminatory treatment of women and minorities. The very powers that supported the Mujahiden resistance had abandoned the country as a dark hole once they achieved their strategic objective of winning the Cold War. Could Afghanistan and the region around it, including Pakistan, have been different from what it is today if the world community had committed itself to rebuilding Afghanistan after the fall of communism or engaged constructively with the Taliban regime? It is an important question to think about. I cannot answer it, but it would suffice to say that post-conflict reconstruction must be considered not only a moral issue, but also a national security imperative.

The cost of that neglect has been too heavy for the West, the region, Afghanistan and Pakistan. With this in mind, and how Pakistan became fixated with the construction of a national security state, its imperatives driving our internal political development and foreign policy, Khan explains the rise of militancy, extremism and conflict within Pakistan. His main thesis is that Pakistan has drifted away from the vision of its founders. I am in full agreement with him when he makes an argument for a democratic, constitutional state driven by a modernist agenda of social change and economic development. He registers his concern about making militancy an instrument of foreign policy which has stung Pakistan and
appears to be out of control.

Drawing insights from the history of the region and based on his own experiences in handling Afghanistan, Khan makes a sound argument for Afghanistan for the Afghans — respect of the country’s sovereignty and autonomy. The American led war and presence of its forces can pose a problem for Afghanistan and the region as it may continue to fuel anger and incite militant resistance. Khan proposes “long-term international and US political and economic engagement” and “reconciliation” within Afghanistan as important variables for peace and stability. For reconciliation to be successful, it must be an Afghan initiative and its ownership and responsibility must rest with them, with supportive role from the outsiders.

The author argues that the post-Taliban Afghanistan is “irreversible”, but to protect gains in state and nation building, the American and international strategy needs to move beyond war as a primary instrument of policy. The key point he suggests is overcoming fear and distrust by the three players — Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. Better understanding of one
another’s expectations, genuine interests, and limitations can help. But what is more important is being realistic in the pursuit of ambitions and not going back to the old power games, regional rivalries and interventionist policies.

In the case of Pakistan, Khan makes a passionate case for a return to the modernist vision, educational and madrassa reforms, the integration of FATA with the Pakistani state system and the rejection of militant outfits as instruments of policy. The hearts of those readers who want to see a progressive, modernist Pakistan would be warmed by reading the book.

Caught in the Af-Pak quagmire Reviewed By Rasul Bakhsh Rais . The reviewer is a professor of Political Science at LUMS and the author of two books on Afghanistan

Book Review on: "Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity" By Riaz Mohammad Khan, Oxford University Press, Karachi, ISBN 978-0-19-906381-9 ,

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