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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Ominous Clouds on the Western Horizon

As Biden takes the most difficult but right decision to conclude the endless war in Afghanistan and U.S. troops commence long awaited pulling out that is scheduled to be completed by September 11, 2021 (may be hastened to 4th July American Independence Day), the American longest war will have lasted nearly two decades and spanned four presidencies.

The Afghanistan conundrum is winding up at the financial cost of almost $1 trillion and more than 2,000 American soldiers’ death, innumerable wounded with thousands others suffering from psychological problems. Besides, this war has also cost hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives. The United States invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. President George W. Bush authorized the war in response to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre Twin towers on the plea that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was providing refuge for al Qaeda, the terrorist organization that had orchestrated the attacks. Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, evaded the U.S. military for a decade, but the Taliban regime fell within weeks. The political and military goals and objectives kept changing with the passage of time starting with defeat of Taliban, elimination of Al Qaeda to rebuilding Afghanistan as a Western styled democratic country with pro U.S. government in place, but all in vain. U.S. and allied forces stayed in Afghanistan to support a new government in Kabul. But the Taliban soon regrouped.

For years, the fighting ebbed and surged as Washington tossed around versions of the same questions: With more time and resources, could the U.S. military finally rout the Taliban and the terrorists they had harboured? Was staying the course a better option than risking the crumple of the hatchling Afghan state? Or was it necessary to find a way out, whether by negotiation or unilateral withdrawal? Were the stated U.S. objectives of invading Afghanistan true and honest or the unannounced goals were greater and different as evidenced by total destruction of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and lately Palestine with rest of the Middle Eastern countries under effective control costing almost US $ 3 Trillion that resulted in neglect of internal front for America with greater socio-political ramifications. While Iran is being dealt with in multiple ways, the global contest during these last two decades shifted to Indo-Pacific with new economic and military alliances shaping up in the region to contest and contain fast rising China and resurgent Russia in her former sphere of influence.

On the other hand the war profiteers continue to churn out new narratives that appeal to western ears, to keep US/NATO’s military engagement in Afghanistan in one form or the other and more importantly keep seeking and gulping more money to sustain so called Afghan national security forces and economy, which proved an exercise in futility in the last two decades due to rampant corruption by Afghan power brokers, Political and tribal elite and the donor machinery itself as repeatedly highlighted by American Special Inspector General and other agencies’ reports.

The other factors that consistently remain in place is the tendency of the sitting Afghan government to malign Pakistan for all their faults and failures. Despite Pakistan’s generous but counterproductive efforts to please the thankless Afghan regimes, continued cross border terrorism through proxies operating from Afghan soil and above all second or even third degree treatment by the USA also also continues unabated. Afghan elite closely affiliated with India as well as with her strategic supporters and like minded stakeholders never stop to backstab Pakistan in every way that they can manage with new clients hiring intelligence operators and contract fighters for privatized covert war to continue. So no sigh of relief for Pakistan from the Western borders while IIOJ&K is kept bleeding under Indian siege and the line of control keeps simmering on and off.

I had written in March 2021 (Resetting Pakistan's Strategic Compass) that in view of the well understood global realignments, it becomes imperative to undertake serious review of our strategic thinking about security, economic and diplomatic pursuits to regain lost diplomatic and strategic spaces.

In my opinion, some of the important questions that need to be reconsidered are: Is there anything to rejoice by Pakistan and other peace supporters or instead feel more concerned about the consequences of General Austin’s visit to India and Afghanistan with exit of USA/NATO troops being replaced by greater reliance on covert war? __ Why has the USA always preferred to keep a narrow focus on maintaining time and objectives specific military and intelligence relations with Pakistan rather than wholesome normal state to state relations equally involving all other socio-economic and scientific fields? __ Why does American top leadership always prefers to visit India and Afghanistan and keep Pakistan’ leadership engaged by short term contracted third or fourth tier representatives with known anti Pakistan bias and more importantly why does Pakistan accept this lowly treatment?__ While strategic results are achieved as well as expected from Pakistan, yet why Pakistan is kept under pressure by FATF and by other discriminatory sanction regimes?__ Would Pakistan ever be allowed to live without oxygen line provided by World Bank, IMF and other IFIs to enjoy economic sovereignty?__ What are Pakistan’s strategic gains and losses in the last 20 years of coercive cooperation with US and allies?__ Would appeasement policies towards ever thankless and backstabbing neighbours at the cost of compromising long held strategic interests serve any national purpose in short or long terms?__ Why US president and secretaries don’t interact with their Pakistani counterparts?__ And why do American leadership feel safe and comfortable in visiting Afghanistan and not Pakistan?— The short answer: it is managed by exploitation of our internal fault lines and we were forced to accept this undesirable poor treatment in the last two decades for some known and other unknown reasons.

But it is never too late to put the directions right. While Afghan peace process may seem ‘one step forward and two steps backward’ and IIOJ&K is burning under long siege by India, Pakistan needs to keep its strategic compass well set as well as restore much belated diplomacy on the principle of reciprocity and equality of status for the whole of government approach, graduated responses and deliberate oversight.

Pakistan’s one sided wish that it should not be seen through the prism of any other country has always fallen on deaf ears by the USA. Pakistan must continue to put its own house in order on all fronts with strategic focus on ensuring security through evolving international realignments and economic interdependence. Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance, military capabilities and geo-economic potential must be utilized with pride, self respect and honesty for the betterment of the people of Pakistan and for acquiring a respectable place among the community of nations. The recent Prime Ministers address to the Pakistani diplomats home and abroad followed by active diplomacy by the foreign minister on Palestine is a good omen that must be maintained with even greater vigour to find just and amicable solution to World number one potential nuclear flash point i.e. IIOJ&K, other disputes resolution and for seeking greater economic opportunities for Pakistan. In view of the potential recurrence of civil war in Afghanistan and even enhanced proxies, Pakistan Armed Forces should accord highest priority to sealing the Western and Southern borders by completing 100 percent fencing supplemented by mining, lighting, electrification and adequate manning with highly effective immediate ground and air retaliatory response in place to deter frequent firing from across the borders. The return of Afghan refugees including thousands with fake or acquired Pakistani national identity cards and passports is long overdue that is costing Pakistan dearly and needs to be accomplished on highest priority. The noble but fruitless efforts to appease the Afghan elite with multiple sponsors with greater deep pockets must stop and instead invest on projects where possible that directly benefit Afghan poor and deprived masses in long term like health and education sectors. ‘If appeasing our enemies is not the answer, neither is hating them.... Somewhere between the extremes of appeasement and hate there is a place for courage and strength to express themselves in magnanimity and charity, and this is the place we must find’~.

6 th June , 2021

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