The bitterness of Sharbat Gula

Sharbat Gula, the Afghan woman who made it to the cover of National Geographic as a young Afghan refugee in Pakistan, was jailed for more than fifteen days on charges of illegally obtaining a CNIC. She suffers from hepatitis C and had no one to look after her in jail, her husband and daughter having died of the same disease. An international outcry over this treatment led to reversal of the decision to deport her but her incarceration is certainly likely to wipe away any good memory of her years in Pakistan. She said she did not want to stay in Pakistan any more.

I might not even have noticed the Sharbat Gul story had I not visited Afghanistan and seen the shine in the eyes of many Afghans when I spoke to them about Pakistan. At Kabul airport, the young man at the scanning machine got terribly excited at the sight of my passport and told me about the good fifteen years he spent in Pakistan and how nicely he was treated by its people. Indeed, there are many people in Kabul who will tell you of the difference between the experience of the Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. The refugees from the latter are better educated and trained than those returning from the former.

Baghe Babur - Photo by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Baghe Babur – Photo by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa

There are complaints of border forces extracting bribes from poor Afghan people to allow them to cross the border with their animals. What we are looking at in the form of mass Afghan repatriation is a human tragedy in the making that Pakistan could argue is not its problem. But the manner in which Islamabad plays its hand will have a long term impact on how ordinary Afghans will perceive their neighbour

Didn’t we open our homes and hearths for the Afghans during the 1980s and let them travel throughout the country and settle anywhere they wanted because it served our interests then? It was precisely for this policy that we were threatened by the former Soviet Union and there were incursions of our air space. Such a policy of openness during the 1980s has arguably put the life of an average Pakistani at risk. Nevertheless, the new policy is nothing to smile about as it is likely to undo any goodwill we generated all these years. The shine in the eyes of the airport security guard and many like him will soon disappear as more and more Afghan refugees return from Pakistan with stories of how they were harassed at the border or at places they lived. Even Pakistanis, and not just Afghans, tell stories of how the heads of Afghan families are randomly picked up and kept hostage as a guarantee that they leave Pakistan. Sharbat Gul again seems to be one such case. Moreover, there were complaints of border forces extracting bribes from poor Afghan people to allow them to cross the border with their animals. What we are looking at in the form of mass Afghan repatriation is a human tragedy in the making that Pakistan could argue is not its problem. But the manner in which Islamabad plays its hand will have a long term impact on how ordinary Afghans will perceive their neighbour.

Afghanistan is a country searching for itself at a time when it needs consideration from regional and international actors. This is at least what I could fathom during a brief visit. This search is taking place in a part of the world which has been a repository of an ancient history that connects Central Asia and South Asia. A visit to Emperor Zaheeruddin Babur’s grave in Baghe Babur, Kabul amply bore this out. Yet, Afghanistan’s polity is in the process of defining itself today by grappling with friction among internal power centers and among international players that lay claims to determining its future. Despite the air of an ‘unforgettable lightness of being’ that one encounters, the grave security threat to people’s lives, especially to foreigners working or visiting the country, cannot be understated. It is not just the Taliban but warlords who also kidnap for ransom. Just a few months ago a female employee of the Aga Khan Foundation was kidnapped, forcing the AKF (that is engaged in numerous commendable activities in Afghanistan and Central Asia) to do what other organizations in Afghanistan do all the time: beef up security and invest in bullet- and bombproof white land cruisers that are in abundance in the country. The Serena Hotel, in particular, which is one of the two relatively secure and five-star hotels in Kabul, is practically a fortress.

Delhi has worked efficiently to enhance its influence in Afghanistan and fight the battle for winning hearts and minds in the country by setting up initiatives visible to the common person. The numerous pediatric centers or educational and cultural initiatives have worked wonders for Delhi. Pakistan, on the other hand, does not seem to have a new policy towards Afghanistan that would help capitalize on its inherent advantages

Outside the urban areas there is a constant conflict between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban. According to a VoA journalist I met there, a road going out of Kabul will be safe to travel during certain times when it is controlled by the Afghan security forces. But that control is not permanent as the Taliban could sporadically challenge the military’s authority and set up their own check post. But then a few hours later the military would reclaim it. The constant game of hide and seek continues to play out, making the security environment precarious. But this in itself cannot be seen as a sign of the return of the Taliban to control the entire territory.

Although not excessively efficient, Kabul and its international partners have struggled with creating an indigenous security infrastructure that some in Pakistan find problematic. Many of the retired military officers who form part of the track-II dialogues between the two countries have often advised Kabul to reduce the number of its security forces if not scrap the structure entirely. It is reasonable to expect that Kabul will try to develop a semblance of autonomy as far as its security is concerned. The ruling elite and the middle class in Afghanistan seem invested in the evolving security infrastructure. In fact, the military is gradually becoming an emerging local patron which the young urban Afghans look up to for protection. They are proud of their armed forces and police, which is not very different from the norm in the larger South Asian neighborhood where people are expected to render unflinching support to the security establishment to a point that challenging myths created by it would be tantamount to being unpatriotic. The Afghans have, however,  not reached the point where the military is considered synonymous to the state. Hence, the environment of discussion and debate remains vibrant and, in fact, you can find more open criticism of the government and state functionaries here than you would in the rest of South Asia.

Women at the shrine of Hazrat Ismail Ansari in Afghanistan - Photo by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Women at the shrine of Hazrat Ismail Ansari in Afghanistan – Photo by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa

The young and urban Afghanistan is thoughtful about the challenges it encounters. It was almost amusing to see the former Afghan ambassador Mullah Zaeef share the panel at the security dialogue with a new generation of women who were ready to stand on their own. This goes hand in hand with the realization that the Taliban would have to be talked to. It was interesting to listen to the musings of women in senior positions in the government as they pondered over the decision not to engage with the Taliban after 2001. One could also overhear skepticism regarding Zalmay Khalilzad’s role and his capacity to make policies especially when he was personally affected by conditions in the country. The view was that someone a bit more detached might have had a different level of rationality. However, an underlying thought pertained to the discomfort with Pakistan’s attitude in not allowing a certain level of autonomy to the Afghan ruling elite. This frustration becomes visible at times such as when the entire hall at the conference broke into applause to the suggestion that Pakistan had continued to support militants inside Afghanistan and thus ought to be punished for its behaviour. This is notwithstanding similar suspicions raised when Afghans come on a visit to Pakistan. There are many a claims that are made, suggesting that the current ruling elite, which Rawalpindi’s hawks describe as a ‘regime’, are influenced by India. Indeed Delhi has worked efficiently to enhance its influence in Afghanistan and fight the battle for winning hearts and minds in the country by setting up initiatives visible to the common person. The numerous pediatric centers or educational and cultural initiatives have worked wonders for Delhi.

Pakistan, on the other hand, does not seem to have a new policy towards Afghanistan that would help capitalize on its inherent advantages. For example, one of the things I learnt during a 2014 study on Pakistan-Afghanistan trade was that Islamabad had a natural advantage versus Iran. Even though Tehran offered greater advantages, the ordinary Afghan trader was more comfortable dealing with Pakistan due to ethnic and sectarian affinities besides other factors. Some Afghans continue to crib about India’s bureaucratic red tape and find it less expensive to trade through Pakistan. And so, if one examines the factors that favour Pakistan, it can be argued that we have not been able to use them to capture the relationship initiative not just because of some Indian conspiracy but perhaps because we have worked against our own interests. While India would play for its gains, the question that ought to be asked is what side Pakistan is batting on especially when senior military officials grow incensed by the growing Delhi-Kabul linkage and make policies to put pressure on ordinary Afghans? How fair would it be to ascribe all outcomes to Delhi’s machinations when Pakistan’s diplomatic missions are not known for reaching out to people and making new friends and links? How does it help to create bureaucratic hurdles and ensure that Afghans divert from Peshawar to Delhi for medical tourism? Although Islamabad has committed over $600 million for development in Afghanistan, it seems too little too late to begin something that should have happened long ago. It certainly required a vision to establish universities and schools in Afghanistan with the help of the private sector to develop existing links with Afghan society.

Instead of taking responsibility for a lack of initiative, Islamabad has resorted to the easy way of looking at Afghanistan purely from an India lens. Consequently, there is a propensity to avoid looking for partners beyond the Taliban even though Islamabad constantly claims to have no influence over the Afghan warriors. How then will any alternative appear when Islamabad seems to force its own preference on Afghanistan and its new political players that emerged after 9/11? This flies in the face of the constant reassurances that Pakistan appreciates Afghanistan’s sovereignty and respects the government in Kabul instead of imposing itself. Why then does the Pakistani delegation ask the Afghans to rid their territory of American troops, a demand that could only be understood as Rawalpindi wanting to impose its own choice over the future of its neighbour.

A visit to Afghanistan and being able to observe the dialogue between the two states through its power elite reminded me so much of policy flaws demonstrated by treatment of Pakistan’s eastern wing at the hand of its western wing during the 1960s and 1970. Just as crowded Jamaat-e-Islami rallies in East Pakistan were interpreted as an indicator of their possible victory in the 1970 elections, my fear is that the goodwill among ordinary Afghans is looked upon as support for choices that Pakistan’s establishment is hell bent on making for Afghanistan. The tactfulness in handling Kabul is where India may have an edge over Islamabad. I wonder where is our policy to plug the holes in our Afghan policy so that it does not turn into yet another disaster. The Americans may not leave; the Taliban may not be able to take over the entire territory again; and Afghanistan may become moderately violent in the future, thus sapping Pakistan’s energy. These are just some of the possibilities that must inform our reactions and policies.

Note: This article originally published here.

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