In Afghanistan’s instability, Pakistan is the biggest loser

With the US withdrawal, Afghanistan is likely to descend into chaos. Shaukat Qadir analyses why Pakistan will be affected more than any other Afghan neigbour

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Will the US withdrawal from Afghanistan be complete or partial? How will either option affect Afghanistan and, indeed, Pakistan?

These are the questions under discussion among analysts in both countries. It would take a courageous person to offer a considered response with any certainty. However, let me make an effort to do so.

Hamid Karzai has been president of Afghanistan for a little over 12 years. He started his political career with a huge disadvantage. Despite Mr Karzai being a Pashtun and a Popalzai Durrani, the tribe of kings, the US inflicted an inordinately large number of non-Pashtuns from the erstwhile Northern Alliance (NA) on him, and he began to be viewed as a US stooge.

Mr Karzai did not help matters by failing to assert himself. He aggravated the situation further by a steady decline towards a corrupt, cruel and incompetent regime. Over the years he has become increasingly unacceptable to Afghans across the ethnic divide, except for those who are benefiting from or hoping to benefit from his regime.

After 2010, he seemed to grasp how irrelevant he had become to the future of Afghanistan. As a consequence of this realisation, he began to blow hot and cold towards the US and it is highly unlikely that he, or a protégé of his, will be elected to replace him if the election is a transparent one.

Therefore, if he signs the “bilateral agreement” that the US wants, it is likely to be in return for a personal benefit. And, even if he were to sign such an agreement at this juncture, it might not be upheld by Mr Karzai’s replacement.

The US has also, as always, been focusing on leaves rather than the whole forest. It has concentrated exclusively on Mullah Omar’s group of Afghan Taliban for negotiations, excluding the natural balancing force available to it in the Zadrun tribe to which the Haqqanis belong, the Ghilzais, other Pashtun tribal leaders and those leaders of other ethnicities who hold sway over their tribes but were not members of the NA or of the Karzai government.

By doing so, the US has limited its own options and, in a way, albeit unintentionally, made it exceedingly difficult for Mr Karzai to sign the bilateral agreement.

On the other hand, Mullah Omar’s Taliban are contending that their support is on the rise. This might well be true.

The Taliban have not remained confined to the Durranis and have reached out to the elders of many tribes. This is something the US should have done themselves. The Zadruns, including the Haqqanis, have also, albeit reluctantly, accepted Mullah Omar as their mouthpiece during negotiations. In this scenario, Pakistan has lost some but not all of its relevance in designing the future of Afghanistan.

Over the past few decades, Afghan Pashtuns in particular, and other Afghan ethnicities to a lesser degree, have begun to realise how relevant Pakistan and Iran are likely to be to the commercial future of Afghanistan.

And yet this realisation might become irrelevant to what happens in Afghanistan if the country descends into chaos post-2014.

In an earlier article for this newspaper, I explained that this scenario might actually be a beacon of hope because some kind of order could emerge from this period of chaos.

And, if chaos is Afghanistan’s destiny in the post-2014 scenario, that chaos can end only after it begins and, therefore, the sooner it begins, the better.

The problem with this formulation is that while some kind of order is likely to emerge, no one knows how long the chaos will last, nor the kind of order that might follow, nor even how the chaos will affect the nation for the period it lasts.

While all of Afghanistan’s neighbours will be affected by its descent, the one that will be most burdened will be Pakistan. Not only does it share the longest border with Afghanistan (whatever its legal status), Afghan Pashtuns have ignored the Durand Line since time immemorial, crossing into Pakistan at will, to seek and find succour there whenever they came.

It is highly unlikely that a change of heart by the Pakistan government, if there is any, will prove to be an impediment to this custom of tribal hospitality.

Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to muddle along and actually, fare not too badly. Far from sinking, its economy is beginning to recover, even though very slowly. While terrorist activities have not decreased, support for the Taliban has begun to fall and, not unsurprisingly, the people’s efforts to solve their own security issues have begun to increase.

The recent example of Aitzaz Hassan, the 15-year-old schoolboy who died preventing a suicide bomber from targeting his school is not an isolated incident; it’s only the most publicised.

His father’s words speak volumes for the emerging determination against these cowardly terrorists who corrupt the minds of innocent children and kill others.

After Aitzaz’s death, his father commented: “I have one more son. He will be privileged and I will be honoured if he too, like his brother, gave his life to save many others.”

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer