US pullout would be the best thing for Afghanistan

If what Trump is saying is true, he is going to reverse the policy of aiding IS. By the same logic, Afghanistan is slightly less interesting for Trump and it is possible that there might be a change in the US Afghan policy

Pak-Afghan relations just don’t seem to improve. Way back when the terror war started, Gen Musharraf tried to build a working relationship with Karzai. How that backfired is now the stuff of history. Then, of course, the civilian setup tried to make peace – Zardari actually invited Karzai to his inauguration. But that didn’t work either, and Islamabad and Kabul remained, more or less, at daggers drawn. Then, after ’13, Nawaz Shrif tried to be friendly – as part of his overall initiative of making peace with all the neighbours. Unfortunately that, too, failed.

Off and on our army chiefs have also stepped in to help break the ice. Gen Raheel was a frequent visitor to Kabul; probably because President Ghani made a point of visiting the GHQ when he came to Pakistan. And Gen Bajwa has made similar gestures. Yet almost sixteen long years into this war, it seems Pakistan and Afghanistan have yet to understand that the basic prerequisite for peace in the region is peace among themselves.

To understand the complex situation, DNA talked exclusively to well-known security analyst, Brig (R) Shaukat Qadir.

Q: Why has the matter of Afghan refugees’ repatriation become so controversial? Do you feel the government has approached it in the right manner?

Brig Shaukat Qadir: The repatriation of Afghan refugees is a very touching issue. Over time, the Afghans living in Pakistan have grown manifold and they can be categorised into three groups — rich; poor; and dirt-poor, which are like scavengers.

The rich have invested their wealth in Pakistan and have almost joined the mainstream. The poor mostly have been involved in various businesses.

The third category I call the scavengers who are involved in heinous crimes. They don’t have any incentive to go back and prefer living in Pakistan where they have better opportunities.

The problem with Pakistan has been that we did not register the Afghan nationals and they mostly have been granted citizenship now. No country does this but this is what we did to ourselves. Now they treat Pakistan as their own home after acquiring citizenship. Since there are more opportunities for them here, they have no incentive to go back to war-torn Afghanistan.

Q: Like his predecessor, Gen Bajwa also emphasised ‘breaking the ice’ with Afghanistan to move forward in the war against terror. Yet the friction is growing – the border is closed again. Why do you think Islamabad-Kabul relations are always so cold?

BSQ: You need to understand that the anti-Pakistan vibe is not from Afghanistan; rather it is from Kabul which doesn’t represent the whole of Afghanistan.

Kabul, being a political hub of Afghanistan as is the case with Islamabad in Pakistan, has become a city where elites of Afghanistan have gathered. They are from various ethnic minority groups of the country while the representation of ethnic Pashtuns is minimal, who have been marginalised over the past few decades. Hence, Kabul doesn’t represent all the people of Afghanistan.

Hamid Karzai is based in Kabul and over the years he has developed an anti-Pakistan approach. The reason being that his father was killed in an attack by Taliban insurgents in 1999. Karzai believes his father was assassinated at behest of the ISI. Hence, not only has he turned against Pakistan but he has largely influenced elites and media of Kabul against Pakistan as well.

Karzai was also instrumental in disrupting the peace talks by getting the news of Mullah Omar’s death out. Hence, there is a strong segment in Kabul which is against Pakistan. The same elements also are working to encourage anti-Pakistan activities whether it is through Indian intelligence or others.

The chief of army staff, Gen Bajwa, has wisely decided to use the carrot and stick policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan. He has urged Afghanistan to turn the page and build a new relationship.

The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan is a landlocked country while they behave as if they are a transit state. Now a transit state must have entering and exit points. Afghanistan has entering point but they don’t have any exit.

Q: With Chinese efforts to engage the Afghan Taliban gathering momentum, do you think an end to the war might be around the corner?

BSQ: The Chinese also want peace and stability in Afghanistan. Now they have access to Afghanistan only through Pakistan. Being strategic partners of Pakistan, the Chinese also watch Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan while they would also want to see Indian interests reduced in Kabul.

However, though China is warming up to the Afghan Talban, it is very difficult to settle things in Afghanistan soon. But ultimately, this has to happen as not only China is working quietly for Afghan peace along with Pakistan, but Russia is also jumping into the fray.

The Pashtun nation is very wise and they are always interested in economic gains. They have to pass over and join the massive economic opportunities looking their way through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other trans-regional economic initiatives coming to the region.

The regional economy will soon be booming as after CPEC, the China-Eurasia economic corridor is also available for transit trade and Russia is also becoming active in regional realignment. So, when two powerful regional states are involved, one would strongly believe that these efforts would succeed. It would happen sooner than later.

Q: Do you feel there is weight in talk of a new Pakistan-China-Russia alliance emerging in the region? If so, how crucial is a peaceful Afghanistan for such a grouping?

BSQ: Firstly, there is a question whether this nexus exists or should exist. In this regard, there are two parts naturally linked to this debate. One is the economic nexus and the other is strategic or military interest. I think the economic nexus is there already and all the countries — China, Russia, Pakistan — realise this, especially with CPEC going through. And the future is economic realignment and to accept they are inter-dependent. Now, inter-dependence facilitates long term economic interests. And more often than not the strategic or military alliance emerges from economic interests.

As regards the second part of your question, peace in Afghanistan, whenever you look at any country, from military perspective or from economic aspect, its location is significant.

Just take the example of Singapore which is a junction point between two oceanographic seas. It has emerged as a hub that joins this place. And for no other reason than that, Singapore has become a giant.

The location of Afghanistan is import for many reasons. But for other reason, which you can’t avoid, is your neighbour, and rather immediate, next-door neighbour. Pakistan shares a large boundary with three countries: India, the largest boundary, then Afghanistan, the second largest boundary; and Iran, the third largest boundary.

Therefore, any stability or instability in the neighbouring countries would directly and indirectly affect Pakistan. Now you have asked what significance for us is peace in Afghanistan. The answer is very simple.

Even now, we are suffering from the menace called hybrid war. This is fourth or fifth generation warfare, a sort of terrorism but the difference is that instead of being carried out by a weaker party against a stronger country, it is now being carried out by a stronger country — the US against Pakistan — intending to target China.

But in the process, it is targeting economic interests. America is doing in two places already — one is Pakistan and the other is Ukraine, for Russia’s European corridor. So we are already a victim to that and India has become a party to it. It is a front player in the American strategic discourse.

And that’s why it’s happening. So if Afghanistan is unstable, it would be a threat to the economic initiative of CPEC through subversive acts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

Hence, Afghanistan is very significant for us and we must therefore do everything possible to ensure the course of peace and development there.
Q: The Trump administration hasn’t yet been too vocal about AfPak. Do you think that shows reduced interest on part of Washington or this might just be the lull before the storm?

BSQ: So far, we need to see what Trump said in his policy statements before he took over and after he assumed office. One or two themes were very clear. America First was his first slogan. And he said he wanted America to be less interventionist. He has qualified that with his statement on Syria. And he stated the American forces were guilty of ruthless bloodshed as were Russian forces there. He acknowledged that American policy in Syria was a self defeating one.

Now, some say what he said on Syria is not a standard to apply on Afghanistan as well. But he said would terminate IS. And, so far, the American policy was to encourage IS; they were building up IS. And they knew it, it is public record now. One of the American generals who retired around three years ago went public about it. He said it publically that in year 2012, they had said your policy in Syria would result in enhancing IS.

If what Trump is saying is true, he is going to reverse the policy of aiding IS. By the same logic, Afghanistan is slightly less interesting for Trump and it is possible that there might be a change in the US Afghan policy. However, having said that, I don’t think that Afghan instability will be their policy. They might become somewhat indifferent — like they did earlier. But I don’t think anything worse will happen.

Q: So the lack of US interest in Afghanistan may lead to a new surge of terrorist outfits like IS?

BSQ: It would depend when and how Pakistan and Afghanistan jointly handle this. Because I think any external interference is self defeating. I don’t know of any example where outside forces have handled dissension in a country. It is always been done from within; it has to be domestic forces which make this happen.

And it can be done after the US pulls out. I would say that there might be a period of insecurity initially after the pullout. It would be the best thing to happen to Afghanistan. Yes, there would be a period of uncertainty and insecurity, but through this would come some kind of improvement.