Peace in Afghanistan’s neighborhood
At the Chicago NATO Summit on Sunday, President Barack Obama reaffirmed pledges he made on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing: that the U.S. will withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 but will continue to provide security assistance for 10 years after that.
But whether the troops stay or leave, nothing will bring security to Afghanistan until there is fundamental change in Pakistan’s military establishment — specifically, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which labors under the misconception that it has a right to meddle inside the borders of its neighbor to the west, Afghanistan. Staffed primarily by members of Pakistan’s armed forces, the ISI’s policy has been to keep its neighbor weak and under its thumb — a destructive relic of a policy left over from the imperial era.
As an Afghan-born American, I have long believed that Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflicts were triggered by its failing economy, which led to a vicious cycle: Its weak government remains unable to exert authority beyond a few major cities, which in turn leads to foreign intervention, which further weakens the government.
I still stand by that belief but, after spending the last three years in the field as an interpreter and culture adviser for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, I now realize that my native country has become a battleground for old enemies: India and Pakistan. The snow-capped mountain region between India and Pakistan may be the most dangerous border in the world, with rockets firing in both directions almost daily. Geographically, Pakistan is wedged between India and Afghanistan. Understandably, Pakistan remains suspicious of New Delhi’s close relations with Kabul and doesn’t want to be squeezed between two adversaries on its east and west. However, this does not give Pakistan license to harbor terrorists in order to achieve its objective of keeping Afghanistan weak.
This policy is being carried out by the ISI, which was created in 1948 to offer advice to government but now has become so powerful that it sets national policy. The pursuit of this miscreant goal could have dire consequences not only for the region, but for Pakistan itself.
The ISI is engaged in a political “Jurassic Park”-type experiment. Thousands of madrassas (Islamic seminaries) in Pakistan are churning out graduates with no marketable skills, whom the ISI hopes to use as paramilitary forces against India and/or Afghanistan. If it works, the “raptors” will eat Pakistan’s enemies, but it’s looking more like a “Jurassic Park” disaster where the “raptors” become an army of unemployed anchors on the economy and pose a threat to the stability of Pakistan itself, as well as Central Asia.
The Pakistan ISI may be patting itself on the back for milking the U.S. and its allies of cash in return for “fighting terrorism” while at the same time hosting bin Laden and other Taliban leaders on their soil, but I believe it has reached a tipping point. Pakistan could be better served if it stops seeing a national interest in keeping Afghanistan weak and instead comes up with a policy that is more practical and suited to 21st-century realities. It is possible.
Despite deep mistrust and finger-pointing, there are still common areas that could jump-start good relations. One has already begun: the U.S.-supported Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA), which was signed last year to open land routes from Afghanistan to India through Pakistan (but not the reverse) and use of Pakistan’s seaports. Pakistan received access to Afghanistan’s land routes as a gateway to the rest of Central Asia.
Adding India and other Central Asian nations to the agreement could create a modern Silk Road, making Afghanistan the commercial hub that it was before the 16th century. U.S. support of a stronger commercial zone would benefit both countries, and Afghanistan would get on its feet sooner.
Going forward, both sides could ease border restrictions and allow freedom of movement for citizens to visit and work on both sides. More than three million Afghans work and live in Pakistan; likewise, thousands of Pakistani skilled workers are employed in Afghanistan. Millions of Pashtuns live near the border, and many keep residences on both sides. Keeping them separated will only protract the conflict.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai could take a hint from former President Ronald Reagan and tell Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to “tear down this wall” that separates the two nations. It could create a huge commercial zone from which everyone would benefit.
Instead of spending so much in time, money and lives to confront the Taliban, the U.S. and Afghanistan should instead focus on forging a new, strong alliance. Imagine if Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the U.S. could find common ground and economic and geopolitical cooperation between all four nations.
It may not be easy, but that goal seems a better use of our combined political and military might. If the Taliban prove counterproductive, they will wither against this new alliance. Afghanistan and Pakistan can benefit from bilateral trade and put aside their destructive behavior. Afghanistan will not need U.S. and foreign aid to combat Pakistan. All the new allies will be stronger for it.
Wahab Raofi is a graduate of Kabul University Law School and worked at various levels for the Ministry of Justice in his native Afghanistan. He immigrated to the United States and now lives in Orange County, Calif. Recently he worked with the U.S. Army as an interpreter during the Afghanistan War. The opinions expressed in this column represent only his personal viewpoint.