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Don't Let Pakistan Repeat Past Mistakes In Afghanistan

Ethnic Pashtun politicians attend a gathering in Kabul in 2008.
Ethnic Pashtun politicians attend a gathering in Kabul in 2008.
The recently concluded London Conference on Afghanistan is the latest in a series of meetings that have sought to craft strategies for a country that has been torn by conflict since the Soviet Union invaded it in 1979. Back then, worried that Moscow would expand its footprint in the Pashtun heartland and pose a direct threat to the unity of Pakistan, the generals in Islamabad began a covert program of funding, training, and equipping Afghans willing to take on the Soviet Army.

At that time, the overwhelming majority of Pashtuns were moderate, uninfected by the viruses of religious exclusivism and intolerance that they were subsequently exposed to. The problem for Pakistan was that many of the moderate Pashtuns were ethnic nationalists, who sought a unified Pashtun state that would cover both sides of the 1893 Durand Line, the boundary that was arbitrarily drawn by the British empire to mark out its sphere of influence from that of the amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan. The Afghan territory ceded by the amir was to have been returned 100 years later, a condition that was obviously unacceptable to Pakistan.

No Afghan government has ratified the Durand Line, and only a few have recognized it as a valid (albeit temporary) border. In 1949, the then king of Afghanistan explicitly declared that the line was illegal and that the territories ceded in 1893 ought to be reintegrated into his country. Since then, Pashtun nationalists have regarded Pakistan as a country in illegal occupation of as much as 40 percent of Pashtun territory. They see Pakistan as a country dominated by Punjabis, where the Pashtuns -- together with Sindhis, Baluch, and other non-Punjabi groups -- have second-class status. Therefore, they seek the return of the lost lands of the Pashtun to Afghanistan.

Given the strong backing that Pakistan has historically enjoyed from the West, this demand has received almost zero traction within the international community. However, the dream of a unified Pashtun homeland has continued to simmer in Afghan minds, raising concern in Pakistan about a possible rise in the sentiment for unification in the populations of Dera, Bahawalpur, Ghazi, and the FATA, which were under Afghan rule for 12 centuries before the imposition of the Durand Line.

Left A Vacuum

The military strategists who masterminded the USSR's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan ignored Pashtun nationalist sentiment and believed the delusion that the people of Afghanistan would accept Soviet-style communism. They began rounding up the nationalists -- most of whom were Pashtun -- and exiling or even executing them for their opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan by an alien power.

In this way, they removed from office (and some even from life) those who could have ensured the emergence of the country as a moderate state. The Soviets trampled on Pashtunwali, on the syncretic and Sufi traditions of this great people, and in the process left a vacuum that in just a few years was filled by religious supremacists trained in Pakistan and funded by Saudi Arabia.

It became clear to the Afghans from the very first weeks of the Soviet occupation that Moscow's mission was colonial: to subjugate the Afghans and force them to accept slave status under an ideology they loathed. Such insensitivity to the history and culture of the Afghan people ensured that there developed a powerful Afghan nationalist resistance to the Soviet occupation, spearheaded by the Pashtuns. Sadly, because this group was unwilling to renounce the dream of unifying the Pashtun lands across both sides of the 1893 Durand Line, they were anathema to Pakistan, the country to which the United States outsourced the 1979-88 Afghan war

U.S. policymakers relied on intelligence agents, diplomats, and experts who in the past had worked closely with the Pakistan Army (the only organized military force in the world whose official motto is "Jihad"). These individuals bought into Rawalpindi's line that Afghan nationalists needed to be sidelined and the focus needed to be on the religious extremists who were being trained in their thousands in Pakistan. Indeed, political patriots soon found themselves unwelcome in Pakistan, and nearly 700,000 migrated to India.

Thus far, no one has bothered about just why the India-based Pashtuns remained moderate and nonviolent, while so many of those who moved to Pakistan became religious fundamentalists eager to inflict violence on those who disagreed with their world view. The passing over of Pashtun nationalists in favor of the carefully nurtured Pashtun religious fanatics was to have immense future consequences for international security, blowback that saw its most vicious expression on September 11, 2001.

The military in Pakistan -- aware of the consequences if Pashtuns were to return to their own traditions rather than adopt the alien ideology peddled by international Wahabbism -- are unwilling to move decisively against the religious extremists who today threaten to embroil the Pakistani state in a civil war that would pit the moderate majority against the small -- but deadly -- number of Pakistanis who saw Taliban Afghanistan as a role model for their own country to follow.

In the manner of a gambler unwilling to quit the gaming table even after horrendous losses, the Pakistan Army is still looking toward religious fanatics to create enough mayhem in Kashmir and in the rest of India to persuade the authorities in Delhi to surrender the Kashmir Valley to religious rule. The reality is that the Indian state is strong enough to keep at bay any such effort, aware that the loss of Kashmir would create religious polarization in India that would threaten the safety of the country's 163 million Muslims.

Nightmare Scenario

Each day that the Pakistan Army refuses to make common cause with India in battling the Taliban brings closer that dismal time when civil society in Pakistan may collapse, leading to the nightmare scenario of a nuclear state gone rogue.

Yes, there is a role for some elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And this is their return to the glorious traditions of Pashtunwali. With all its shortcomings, the administration of President Hamid Karzai is slowly taking back the Pashtun historical inheritance of moderation and syncreticism from the Kharijites that constitute the Taliban. As a country that shares its history with Afghanistan, and as the home of an Afghan exile community that today numbers over 1 million, India has a vital stake in ensuring that the Taliban go down to defeat in Afghanistan and that -- as Taliban -- they be denied any role in a country, the majority of whose people seeks to join the international mainstream.

Afghanistan needs more schools that can teach the English language, more hospitals that can cater to the many who are in poor health, and audio-visual outlets that show in vivid detail the country’s horrible immediate past and a vision of its possible future. Only with this can Afghans in Afghanistan become productive, responsible international citizens, just as the many Afghans now settled in democracies such as the United States, the U.K., and India.

Until the mind-set of a Taliban changes, he will represent not an opportunity, but a threat. And the only way his mind-set can be changed is to make him irrelevant in a country that in its core culture is the opposite of his barbarism. A country that wants its women educated and its minorities protected. A country that seeks prosperity not through opium but through information technologies. There is no reason for the military in Pakistan to feel threatened either by Pashtun nationalists or their friends in India. The Durand Line is as much a fact of history as India's McMahon Line with China, and both will endure.

Six decades of lost opportunities have shown that the only rational way forward is to quarantine the religious fanatics and take back only those who have freed themselves of the toxic ideology of the religious supremacists. Any plan that returns oxygen to the Taliban would be as much of a tragedy as the 1979 decision to rely on Pashtun religious fanatics rather than Pashtun nationalists to battle the Soviets was. To err is human, but to repeat that mistake would be criminal.

M.D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University, India. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL