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Pakistan is losing four decades goodwill of Afghans

Mushtaq Rahim

Mushtaq Rahim

The events of late 1970s ensued mass exodus of Afghans to the neighboring countries. The greater portion of refugee migration of large displacement caused by Russian invasion of 1979 took place to Pakistan. Afghans continued to seek refuge in Pakistan throughout 80s as war intensified between the Pakistan based Mujahedeen groups and Russian invaders partnering communist regime of Kabul. Early 90s witnessed collapse of state regime after departure of Russians in 1988 from Afghanistan followed by civil war in the country. The civil war of 90s caused another surge of mass migration to Pakistan.

The first wave of refugees in early 80s comprised of people considering Pakistan their sympathiser. At that time, Islamabad, with financial support from the United States and Saudi Arabia, provided sanctuaries to Afghan Jihadi groups fighting the communist Regime and Russian forces. The partnership was so strongly bonded that many Afghans and even Pakistani civil and military officials termed Afghan resistance against Russians defence of Pakistan and publicly took pride in their alliance.

The second wave of migration, however; comprised mainly of people who considered Pakistan their nemesis. Many Afghan politicians and officials of the toppled regime had to seek refuge in a country that had backed militancy against their government. This group too, with passage of time, disposed off their hatred and the sense of antipathy was replaced by neutrality. The generation arising from the second wave of refugee migration got molded in the shape of migrants of early 80s and as such had a sense of belonging and affection towards Pakistan.

The cohabitation of the refugees and host communities created affinity between people of the two countries. The refugees, mainly concentrated in Peshawar and Quetta, shared communities with their hosts, worked with and for them and even established their own businesses besides partnering with hosts at most of the times. The Pakistani educational institutes accommodated Afghans from primary to higher education while Afghans also established their own educational institutes. During the later years, Peshawar and Quetta based refugees extended their presence to the business hubs such as Karachi and Lahore. Many inter-community marriages further strengthened connection between hosts and refugees.

Pakistani state machinery, in the meantime, marshaled all external interferences in Afghanistan throughout last four decades starting in mid-70s. Islamabad provided safe havens to a handful of militants and equipped them to fight state regime in 1975. The interference further expanded after Moscow chose to invade Afghanistan in December 1979. Russian invasion provided the USA an opportunity at the peak of cold war avenge Vietnam defeat and for the same purpose it persuaded Saudi Arabia to support Pakistan lead fight against state regime in 80s. After departure of Russians, the USA and other international stakeholders of Afghan conflict turned their back on the country. Nonetheless, Islamabad continued to boss over Afghan groups in a bid to establish a hegemony on its western neighbors. Following outbreak of civil war, Pakistan provided patronage to Taliban regime and remained tactical godfather of the movement which continues to this day.

After all meddling that destroyed Afghanistan, the generation that grew-up during refuge maintained strong affection for the country. The longstanding and extended cohabitation created a strong sense of belonging for Afghans neglecting what was being done to their country. In the meantime, they always tried to find other avenues for placing blame for the misfortune of their country.

The fall of Taliban following World Trade Center debacle on 11 September 2001 and commitment of the International Community provided a chance for Afghanistan to return to normalcy and road to prosperity. The generation that grew up in refuge returned to the country with a hope of new beginning. The youth returned with fond memories overlooking all meddling and muddling of 80s and 90s with continued love and affection for their hosts. In other words, Pakistan had a large group of its associates in Afghanistan that could have been its envoy in social, economic and political spheres of Afghanistan.

However, at a time when the world has been trying to give a helping hand to Afghanistan, Pakistan continues to pursue its so called “strategic depth” agenda in Afghanistan attempting to turn Afghanistan into its backyard. As part of the strategy, Islamabad endures to provide patronage to the militant groups by offering them safe havens and sanctuaries. As a result, the generation with affection for their home of refuge, are not able to maintain their level of respect and sympathy; the sympathy that was even confirmed by former President Hamid Karzai. He mentioned in a media interview in 2011 that in case his brother country is attacked, Kabul will stand by Pakistan at the expense of its strongest and biggest of allies, the United States.

The two neighboring countries have been at loggerheads recently over presence of their enemies on the neighboring soils. Amidst the blame game, Islamabad has taken some radical actions recently. The most drastic of the actions was closure of Torkham and Chamman crossing points for Afghans leaving numerous people stranded on the two sides. The total closure meant that even commuters with valid travel documents were not allowed to use the route. It is important to outline that most of the people traveling back and forth through the two crossing points are mainly the ones with relation of refuge days with Pakistan. Besides, Pakistani forces have been shelling bordering areas across the Durand Line under the pretext of targeting sanctuaries of their foes. Again, the target communities are mostly those having lived in Pakistan as refugees with a fraternal feeling for their neighbors.

Such actions, as a result, have been creating a void between Pakistan and its Afghan admirers. The radical actions which are mostly targeted at calming Pakistani public that has been furious due to loss of their loved ones in the spate of deadly terrorist attacks is causing more damage than recovery.Mr. Karzai, a staunch believer in brotherly relations with Islamabad, also showed his dissent overrecent actions of Islamabad. Similarly, Afghan President’s Special Envoy and Ambassador to Pakistan, Mr. Omar Zakhilwal, another of those having spent his teenage and early youth days in Pakistan, revealed his frustration on closure of crossing points, shelling of Afghan territory and harassment of Afghan refugees living in different parts of Pakistan under the auspices of United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Hence, Islamabad needs to reconsider its policy vis a vis Afghanistan in order to retain respect and sense of belonging to Pakistan among the large segment of Afghan society. Pakistani state think-tank should realise that the two neighbors have no choice but to live in harmony and for that reason reshape policies that should be more inclined towards building partnerships rather than dipping Afghanistan. Avenues for discussion about larger historic issues such as Durand Line, one of the primary reasons for Pakistan’s thrust of establishing its domination, should be envisaged instead of efforts towards formation of regional hegemony through imposing its proxies. In addition, the goodwill offered by President Ghani during his first visit to Rawalpindi in 2014 should be reciprocated for trust building between the two nations. Change in policy will help Pakistan regain its lost ground with those Afghans still maintaining soft corner for the country. In addition, Afghans with affection for land of their refuge will be able to lobby and advocate for Pakistan to help it earn a positive picture with policy makers as well as general public in Afghanistan.This will help Islamabad have cordial relations with Kabul and as such avoid further adversaries in the region.

An Afghanistan with positive vibes towards Pakistan is important for Islamabad as it cannot afford having hostile neighbors on Western side of its geography at a time when it has been living in enmity with its Eastern neighbor, India. In addition, Afghanistan remains trade and energy transfer route for energy starving Pakistan. Besides, positive social dynamics towards Afghanistan will ensure stronger share for Pakistan in Afghan economy which still has a lot of space for external partners. In the same context, Afghanistan is the gateway for South Asia to Central Asia and this gateway can facilitate crossover of Pakistani products to the broad central Asian market helping its economy expand. Change in strategy will restrict change of heart for a large segment of Afghan society that is still ready to give leeway to their hosts of refuge days.

Mushtaq M. Rahim (Twitter: @mushtaq_rahim)

The writer is an independent analyst and commentator on international affairs and regional security. He has been working in Afghanistan for the last 14 years on post conflict reconstruction, peacebuilding and promotion of good governance with significant focus on security sector reforms. He has a Masters of Conflict, Peace and Security besides a Masters in Business Administration.


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