Grow up Guys

Cross Post from Daily The Dawn

December 10, 2009

By Cyril Almeida

Afghanistan is so last week. What with the NRO hearings, suicide bombings, drone strikes, talk of the Quetta shura and Al Qaida’s safe havens there really is too much going on for anyone to think about Afghanistan right now.

In any case, so much has been written and said about Afghanistan post-Obama’s speech that it is difficult to imagine anything new or original being added to the debate.

Except, having digested much of what has been talked about here in Pakistan, there is a nagging feeling that the state has missed yet another chance. A chance if not for a fresh start, then to be creative or even add something positive to the mix.

Like a churlish parent obsessed with the exercise of antediluvian rights over his child, the security establishment here continues to treat Afghanistan as its rightful ward that it should be allowed to do as it pleases with. Afghanistan is ours and the rest of the world better not forget that, that’s the message we send.

Here’s what the security establishment has told the Americans about their surge in Afghanistan. One, assure us that the military operations in the south, and even the east, of Afghanistan will not cause militants to start pouring across the border into Pakistan.

Two, fashion a state structure and institutions in Afghanistan that reflect the fact that the Pakhtuns are a majority, or close to one. (Never mind that our love for the Pakhtuns extends not to all Pakhtuns, especially the ones who make irredentist claims to Fata and parts of the NWFP and Balochistan. We only like the Afghan Pakhtuns who want to stay on their side of the border.)

Three, get India out of Afghanistan — they have no business there and we really can’t get down to the business of promoting regional security if they are trying to encircle us. And that’s pretty much it.

To understand the poverty of our security establishment’s thinking, look at what some of the other countries are doing.

Start with India. This from The Wall Street Journal in August: ‘From wells and toilets to power plants and satellite transmitters, India is seeding Afghanistan with a vast array of projects. The $1.2bn in pledged assistance includes projects both vital to Afghanistan’s economy, such as a completed road link to Iran’s border, and symbolic of its democratic aspirations, such as the construction of a new parliament building in Kabul. The Indian government is also paying to bring scores of bureaucrats to India, as it cultivates a new generation of Afghan officialdom.’

Turn next to Iran. This from a March 2009 backgrounder by the Council of Foreign Relations: ‘Iranian radio broadcasts fill the airwaves, Iran-funded road and building projects are under way, a new teacher training centre is planned for Kabul, and a Herat–Khaf rail link (Pajhwok) is being constructed to connect Afghanistan and Iran by train. Iran has also offered humanitarian aid to Kabul in the form of fuel and transport — as much as $500m since 2001, according to the US Congressional Research Service.’

Consider China. From a report in The Telegraph, UK, last month: ‘China’s growing influence in the Afghan economy has been hailed by [Afghanistan’s] mining minister, who has revealed that projects acquired to feed Beijing’s industrial base will triple government revenues within five years…. The Chinese firm developing Aynak [copper deposits near Kabul] plans to employ 20,000 Afghan workers.’

And let’s not even touch the vast amount of American aid that is being poured into Afghanistan. Though, if you’re willing to listen, anyone in the security establishment here will pipe up with the fact that for every $30 America spends in Afghanistan, it spends $1 here.

I get it. We are a poor country, we don’t have an open cheque book, historical and cultural ties mean we don’t have to ‘buy’ influence in Afghanistan like others do, etc. But when was the last time you heard about Pakistan doing anything to help out ordinary Afghans — the same ones we claim to care so much about, or at least the Pakhtuns among them?

Where are the schools we have built, the roads we have fixed, the policemen we have trained, the farmers we have given seeds to, the doctors we have trained, the micro-businesses we have funded, the … you get the idea.

I’m sure if I picked up a phone and called the Foreign Office or the ISPR, they may be able to tell me the positive things we may be doing in Afghanistan — but whatever that positive stuff, it sure isn’t easy to find in the media, online, at meetings or conferences.

In fact, the WSJ article quoted earlier also noted tartly: ‘In terms of pledged donations through 2013, India now ranks fifth behind the US, UK, Japan and Canada, according to the Afghanistan government. Pakistan doesn’t rank in the top 10.’

Elsewhere, too, our record has been drab and uninspiring, grim even.

Politically, all we seem to do is whinge and carp and complain. Afghanistan is ours, ours, ours and you guys — the outsiders — have screwed up what could have been a good thing. You arrogant Americans shut out the Taliban at the Bonn conference, you foolish Britons refused to hand the Taliban a few token provinces and ministries in return for becoming a part of the Afghan government later.

Why can’t we show some initiative instead? Why not call for a ministerial summit in Islamabad of the six-plus-two group? Hey, guys, here’s what we think and here’s a road map that we can lead on. And if the military guys don’t trust the civilians here, why not drop the cloak-and-dagger stuff and all those ‘secret’ meetings with top American officials?

Call all the big military players over to GHQ for a meeting and hold a press conference later — see, we aren’t as diabolical or stubborn as the world thinks, we’ve got ideas and we’re willing to listen and engage.

Again, I get it. All that the security establishment sees and talks about isn’t made up; there are many real threats, few obvious opportunities and little room to manoeuvre in the regional context. But if we want to play with the big boys, we need to realise that the carrots can’t all be theirs and the sticks ours.

For sure, the big boys have to take us seriously because of our political and military position in the region. But they will never want to take us seriously if all we do is curl up sullenly in the foetal position and lash out at others until we get our way in ‘our’ Afghanistan.

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