A small headline made its way to the newspaper today. Mian Nawaz Sharif admitted that the proxy policies that Pakistan pursued in Afghanistan during the 1990s were wrong and destructive for Afghanistan. He realizes that “’Our policy in the past has failed. Neither will such a policy work in future. We have a centuries-old relationship, and we can maintain this relationship only when we remain neutral and support the government elected there with the desire of the Afghan people.”
In between bleak and despondent atmosphere that comes from reading Pakistani news, we tend to forget our land is still governed by a working democracy, free press and free judiciary. While we never cease to malign the very leaders that we elect (and they do leave a lot to desire at times with their short sighted actions), we have two major parties that have worked together on charter of democracy, NFC accord, and are in general agreement against the scourge of religious based extremism that has morphed into a existential threat for Pakistan itself.
For the first sixty three years of our existence, we are still in the process of finding our footings. Our geographic location is a mixed blessing as we found ourselves right in the midst of the great conflict that raged between the Red Russia and the ascendant West. The Muslim nationalism that formed the basis of our existence did include our religion as one of the major influences. As the twentieth century rolled on and more Muslim countries gained independence from the colonial rules, Islam-as-a-political-system ideology started finding proponents in the Middle East and the Indian Sub Continent. Pakistan as a new state gained for Muslims fell progressively to the vague and undefined relationship that Muslim nationalism and Islamic theocracy engenders. In the absence of a prescient leadership, Pakistan never was able to segregate the role of religion from its political system. The confusion morphed into a full blown infection as decades rolled on.
The future generations will probably view the Afghan Jihad in context of the religious fervour that was increasingly becoming synonymous with the Pakistani leadership. At the core, it was an epic struggle between a teetering communist superpower, and the capitalist USA that was still smarting from its own defeat in the South Vietnam.
While Pakistan’s participation in a proxy war against an invading Soviet Army was unavoidable, Pakistan’s subsequent actions in Afghanistan once USSR and the USA had withdrawn turned out to be grossly irresponsible. As Pakistani decision makers strived to create a strategic depth by fusing Pashtun nationalism with religious fanaticism, they opened a Pandora box of religious fanaticism that Pakistan itself hardly understood. The policy resulted in lost decade for Afghanistan where more civilians were killed in a few years of the early 1990s than the total casualties in the whole of the 1980s decade.
This thoughtless and irresponsible strategy resulted in the backing of some of the most despised and ruthless Afghan commanders like Hikmatyaar and Haqqani who feuded and bombed their previous allies. Cities were destroyed as Pakistan continued backing one horse after another. When Pakistan settled with the illiterate and fervently religious Taliban who were manufactured en masse in the teeming madrassahs in the Pakistani cities and towns, Pakistan had finally betted on an increasingly paranoid short term strategy that sacrificed Afghanistan’s future and even Pakistan’s own long term interests in the name of the strategic depth.
There were no easy policy choices in Afghanistan. Yet Pakistani policies in the 1990s were being criticized by prescient observers like Eqbal Ahmad, right as they were being implemented by the decision makers in the mid 90s. Eqbal questioned the decision makers who were entrusting the uncouth religious seminary students with the future of a neighbouring country. He rightly predicted that Taliban and their Arab “guests” would make the only big news in the coming years. Eqbal passed away in 1999, before he could see his correct analysis played out not just in the west, but in the very streets of Pakistan. The carnage had found the real destination: the so called “Islamic fortress” where those Jihadis were originated in the name of the poorly contrived “strategic depth”.
One of my Afghani friends told me that what is happening in Pakistan can be explained quite easily.” What goes around, comes around”. He quietly remarked.
Nations learn from their mistakes. When they introspect their past, they ensure at least one less mistake to make in the future. Mian Sharif admittance here is heartening. These are just a few words that he has spoken; but a center right leader to admit to a failed policy sends a small message that the blinkers in the name of religion are slowly being lifted in Pakistan. We take heart from the small positive developments generated by a rather open democracy in Pakistan. We realize that the road is long, tortuous. Our destination is still a while away, and we may not reach there in our lifetimes. But we are taking very small steps towards a democratic Pakistan where the state works for a just and equitable society for the Pakistanis. We yearn for a Pakistan that provides its citizens protection of their life, property and honour. Where our resources are channelled first and foremost towards providing all of us with education, healthcare and a free society where any of us can go out and explore his or her talents and potential. Religion is an important part of our private lives, but at a state level, anyone’s faith is none of state’s business. We look for a Pakistan where we work with our neighbours to resolve our geographical conflicts to live in a peaceful South Asia. Neither us, nor our neighbours are going anywhere. We might as well live together as progressive and prosperous nations.
And while we disagree with Mian Nawaz Sharif on many fronts, we laud him for this statement. There are far too many negatives in Pakistan. But we hold on to this headline as an indication of a small but an important step towards an introspective Pakistan that is willing to accept responsibility for its past mistakes.
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan should stop trying to influence affairs in Afghanistan, the opposition leader said Tuesday, while admitting that the pro-Afghan Taliban policy he pursued when he was prime minister in the 1990s was a failure.
Nawaz Sharif’s comments come as he tries to gain political traction and deflect criticism that his party is beholden to extremist elements. Just last week, he pushed the government to open talks with elements of the Pakistani Taliban, and the ruling party agreed to his proposal to hold a national conference on stopping terrorism.
The remarks also come as Pakistan tries to weigh in on reconciliation efforts between Afghanistan’s government, the US and the Afghan Taliban.
In an interview with Pakistan’s Dunya TV that aired Monday and Tuesday, Sharif appeared to renounce a policy he pursued with vigor while twice prime minister in the 1990s.
”Pakistan should abandon this thinking that Pakistan has to keep influence in Afghanistan,” said Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-N party. ”Neither will they accept influence, nor should the pro-influence-minded people here insist on it.”
”Our policy in the past has failed. Neither will such a policy work in future. We have a centuries-old relationship, and we can maintain this relationship only when we remain neutral and support the government elected there with the desire of the Afghan people.”
It was unclear where Sharif would stand on the reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.
The PML-N has been criticized in recent months for not going after militant outfits in Punjab, a stance analysts say is driven by its reliance on banned militant groups to deliver key votes during elections.
While proposing Saturday for peace talks with militants in Pakistan, Sharif said Islamabad should take the initiative instead of waiting for directives from Washington. But he also said the negotiations should be with militants ”who are ready to talk and ready to listen.”
The government has brokered peace deals with Taliban fighters along the Afghan border in the past, but they have usually collapsed and have often given the militants time to regroup and consolidate their control.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced later Saturday that he’d agreed to Sharif’s proposal that an all-parties conference be held on ways to defeat militancy. No date has been announced, and the potential impact is unclear. At least one past such gathering has already been held. – AP