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Dawn Columns 31.12.2020

Taliban unbound

 December 31, 2019 

AFTER having fought a flawed war in Afghanistan for 18 years — termed by scholars Samuel Moyn and Stephen Wertheim as “the infinity war” — the US is now looking for a flawed peace. The ongoing US-Afghan Taliban talks appear to be less about Afghanistan’s peace than about the end of America’s war.

The prospective deal may lend credibility to Trump’s claim that he has fulfilled his campaign promise to end America’s endless wars, and give the insurgents a nod of legitimacy. It could also help avoid an immediate meltdown[a disastrous collapse] in Afghanistan. But peace will remain elusive. With both Kabul and the Taliban aspiring for full power, a sliver of which each may be willing to share with the other, the conflict is bound to continue. 

How should Pakistan address this challenge? First, it has to face some truths. 

Pakistan may not have been a party to the Afghan conflict but it has been a part of it. It may not have been part of America’s failure but has certainly been part of the Taliban’s success. This would make Pakistan neither an impartial observer of the war nor an honest peace broker. Pakistan is invested in the future of the conflict and, for better or worse, its conduct matters. Pakistan must think about it carefully.

It is not just the US that has failed in Afghanistan.

We are not in the 1990s, when Pakistan had the field clear to it after the Soviet withdrawal, and Afghanistan was largely a foreign policy challenge. At long last, Pakistan had a government in Kabul that was friendly.

But consider the cost of securing this and what followed; both Pakistan and Afghanistan ended up playing havoc with each other, becoming tributaries and confluences [joining and merging together] of extremist influences that have radiated well beyond the region. It is not just the US that has failed in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, South Asia has become an arena for shifting and overlapping coalitions among regional and global players. With the US withdrawal, Iran and Russia will look at the Taliban differently — not as their ally against the US but as the Pakistani surrogate [substitute]. India will join them for its own reasons. Pakistan will itself face prospects of failure in Afghanistan on the one side, and continued pressures from an assertive India and the unfolding crisis in Kashmir on the other — all while continuing to cope with its internal challenges. Pakistan cannot fight on three fronts and continue to live dangerously. 

At least on one front Pakistan can and should try to manage the crisis better. If Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan through a security lens, it will remain stuck with the Taliban. The focus should be on Afghanistan and its people and how Pakistan can help save them from having to choose between the rule of the Taliban and continued conflict. 

Afghanistan’s economy (especially its infrastructure) has evolved, education has expanded, women’s rights have improved, the media has been revived, and Afghans have sampled democracy, however tainted [having stains]. There is a greater political consciousness among its minorities. And the Taliban remain unpopular. We should not wish Taliban rule over Afghanistan any more than we wish to be ruled by such outfits in Pakistan.

Granted, Afghanistan is horribly corrupt, divided and unstable. And its fractiousness lends itself to unending struggles for power. But Taliban rule in Afghanistan cannot be justified either as a punishment, a remedy for instability or as a weapon of Pakistan’s foreign policy. And, for their part, Afghans must understand that Pakistan cannot solve their problems for them, any more than the Americans could. Aiding terrorists against Pakistan or being friendly with its enemies will not help. 

Afghanistan can only be fixed by the Afghans, but they need Pakis­tan’s help not hindrance. Pakis­tan needs to be tough with the Taliban and restrain them from monopolising political power. Pakistan maintains it cannot exert any more pressure on the Taliban. That may be a good line to take in America’s war but will not work in the conflict to come. The Taliban unbound will create a reverse ideological and strategic depth in Pakistan as they remain the flagship of extremist movements in the region. We will suffer internally from the blowback of their rule in Kabul. Any foreign policy benefit will come at a domestic cost.

The Taliban is a common challenge for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but neither can address it alone. Kabul must work with Pakistan. Only when Afghanistan and Pakistan come together will the Taliban compromise. Pakistan should understand that what is needed is not ambiguity but genuine efforts at peace in Afghanistan. That will help its relations with the US and Kabul, as well as contain the Taliban — and allow it to focus on more important national challenges. 

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty at Georgetown University and senior visiting fellow at National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2019


A collapsing system

December 31, 2019

 THE gods of fate have a wicked sense of humor. When they want to destroy someone, they make their dreams come true but soon turn them into nightmares. This is now happening to those who have long shaped Pakistan’s destiny. The political system devised in 2018 is collapsing, with failing governance, rising dissent and court verdicts against them.

The elite political bargain that has long ruled Pakistan to marginalise its masses has included three state actors (military, judiciary and bureaucracy) and three societal ones (business, the landed elites and the professional middle class). The lords of the system have ruled directly for long periods, giving superficial economic and political progress but prolonged violence. They have controlled governance covertly even in between via civilian facades فساڈ [literally the front of a house]. 

Elite ruling systems aim to maximise elite wealth and keep masses docile [بے ضرر]. But they go through cycles. Direct rule by the lords maximises elite wealth but increases societal dissent among excluded elites and masses. The system then reincorporates excluded business and landed elites who control masses via patronage. But as the cost of sharing increases and dissent decreases, political elites are expelled by the lords. The Musharraf era saw system contraction, followed by the 2008-18 era of reincorporation of political elites and then system re-contraction.

Huge stresses have often toppled elite systems globally.

This current contraction has been along three axes. The first is ethnic which started in 2008. After the ’71 debacle [ناکامی] caused by exclusion of Bengalis, space was given to other ethnicities even though Punjab now had an electoral majority. The PPP often got a majority from the smaller provinces and south Punjab under a non-Punjab prime minister. This outcome is now unlikely and all elected prime ministers since 2008 have been from Punjab, as have been army chiefs. The two biggest parties and their senior leader are mostly from Punjab. Both parties are also conservative. Thus, the second axis of exclusion has been ideological. 

The third axis is class-based. The military, judiciary, bureaucracy and private middle classes have long bristled [غصے کی حالت میں جسم پر بالوں کا کھڑے ہو جانا]at the brashly [غیر شایستہ اور بے ہنگم]crude ways of business and landed elites. But it appears that they still had to be periodically included given their control of the masses via patronage politics. 

In 2018, middle-class minds devised a plan to finally eject them through an allegedly rigged majority for the middle-class-led PTI. The gods of fate granted the dreams of the lords of fate. Conservative middle-class Punjab triumphantly took over the reins. But 15 months later, the gods have trumped [surpassed] the lords. Several factors led to this dizzying descent. The first was the severe inadequacy of much-trumpeted middle-class techno-managerial capacities and honesty to deliver on the hugely complex political task of national governance. 

Secondly, the controversial methods involved delivering scores of traditional electables to the PTI to attain a majority. Thus, the PTI is the first party which must satisfy both the woolly demands of the middle class to eradicate sleaze [immoral, sordid, and corruptand dynastic politics instantly and the demand of electables to retain them.

Thirdly, with traditional elites out, the lords now stand out. Their ways, which dwarf [make something look small in size, power] the visible crudeness of excluded elites in overall resource extraction, are now bothering the rule-based judiciary. All this is unraveling the middle-class coalition.

External factors have not helped. The US seems finally out as a generous cash-rich patron, and attempts to replace it with cunning China have failed. In desperation, the state has turned to imploring traditional elites to pay taxes to deal with financial stress. But such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The win of the bellicose[demonstrating aggression and willingness to fight] BJP has elevated national security pressures. Internal dissent is increasing not only in the marginalised southern provinces but even in KP against Punjab hegemony, and Punjab itself at the ejection of the PML-N. Economic turmoil is stressing people hugely while state political and social policing is contributing to further ire[anger].

Such huge stresses have often toppled elite systems and their leaders globally, eg in South Africa. However, the severe weaknesses of Pakistani civil society and political opposition mean that this historical chance to topple those operating as system masters will be missed. Thus, radical outcomes like an egalitarian system serving the masses or even one under traditional politicians with civilian supremacy are unlikely. The basic options are the incompetent civilian allies somehow being dragged to the finishing line or traditional politicians being reluctantly co-opted via fair polls, recognising that they are better suited to ruling Pakistan than overzealous middle-class warriors. 

The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.



Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2019

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