By Shahrazad Agha
One of the many interesting sessions that were held in the virtual Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) this year was the discussion on eminent journalist Zahid Hussain’s book “Under the Shadow of Afghanistan”. The interview was taken by Associated Press (AP) Afghanistan-Pakistan news director and regional correspondent, Kathy Gannon.
Author, and journalist Ahmed Rashid – who himself is notably well versed in the affairs of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, introduced the two and recognized the expertise of both the panelists on the regional situation.
He highlighted that Zahid Hussain had previously also written books, on militancy, including The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan, and earlier than that, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam. He is also a columnist in Dawn newspaper.
Kathy Gannon, is also the author of a book called I is for Infidel, a book about Afghanistan. “She has been in Afghanistan since the early days of the Taliban,” said Ahmed Rashid. “Gannon has pursued the Afghan conundrum more than any other journalist has.”
Gannon has covered the region for the AP as a correspondent and bureau chief since 1988, a period that spans the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Afghanistan, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the bitter Afghan civil war between Islamic factions the rise and fall of the Taliban.
Beginning the interview, Gannon told Hussain that the detail in his book had struck her, especially the minor detail of the conversations and relationships that ended up in changing history. “I understood a lot of things so much better,” she said. “Pakistan has always been seen through the prism of Afghanistan; this book looks at the US and Afghanistan through the prism of Pakistan.”
She said that it had been over 20 years now, but in the early days when General Musharraf was in power, and was being asked to give up the Taliban – he made a lot of suggestions that may have changed the war in terms of not wanting an unfriendly government in Kabul. He did suggest in bringing in more moderate Taliban. She asked Hussain to dilate on the theory that if they had listened a bit more to Pakistan, history may have been a little different.
Zahid Hussain said that after 9/11, too many things were happening altogether.
“The first thing that happened was the alliance between the Pakistan and the United States – more because of expediency, than the convergence of ideas. But at the very outset, this alliance has never had the kind of convergence of interests that was seen in the 1980s relations between US and Pakistan.”
So what went wrong?
There is a segment in his book called ‘Original Sin’, which has explained what really happened in Afghanistan over the last 20 to 30 years, and also what was happening with the Pak-US relations during that time.
“Pakistan had asked several times to include moderate Taliban in the negotiations and that was the turning point,” he said. “This is besides the fact that Northern Alliance – that had taken over Kabul with the support of the US, were not ready to include any section of Taliban. The other thing was that the US thought the Taliban were part of Al-Qaeda and that they have to be annihilated.”
It was Lakhdar Brahimi, who was the Special UN Envoy for Afghanistan and Iraq, and who was the main architect of the Bonn agreement, who used the term ‘original sin’. He said that there were a lot of factions of Talban, and many of them were willing to accept the reality and would have liked to come into mainstream politics. “I think this explains a lot of whatever followed,” said Hussain.
“The Pakistan-US relationship is still a conundrum,” said Kathy Gannon. “But given that Pakistan is only seen through the prism of Afghanistan, how has that distorted the relationship? Pakistan is always seen as a sort of untrustworthy partner and having a double face. But on the other side too, there was George Bush’s secret memo, and not telling Pakistan but doing drone attacks on its soil.”
“Well, it was a very strange relationship, because they were friends and enemies at the same time – so I would use the word ‘frenemy’,” said Hussain. “When 9/11 happened, Pakistan was needed by the US because of Al Qaeda and Taliban, but it was like a short marriage. In 1980s there was some sort of convergence of interest at that time as I mentioned earlier, but here there was no strategic convergence between the two countries. Pakistan had already been siding with Taliban, when 9/11 happened, and the CIA had already established relations with the Northern Alliance who were against the Taliban. So they were, in a way, standing against each other.”
Hussain said that 9/11 forced Pakistan and US into this relationship which started off from the beginning with distrust.
“There was hardly any trust left because of what happened in 1990 after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan was left all alone, and there was a deep sense of betrayal felt by Pakistan,” he said. “The 1990s was a period of the most estrangement – Pakistan was one of the most sanctioned countries, and 9/11 changed everything. But it was a compulsion by the military, it seemed. General Musharraf took a decision, knowing it very well, that if he would not have gone with the US, it would have created a very difficult situation for Pakistan. Throughout that period, definitely, some interests matched, and there was some cooperation also on some things but there were huge reservations on others.”
When it came to taking action against Al-Qaeda, the cooperation was great, said Hussain. Most of the high profile leaders were captured, with ISI cooperating with CIA, but when it came to Taliban there was a completely different situation. Most of their leaders came to Pakistan after Afghanistan was invaded. They then organized themselves from Pakistani soil and Pakistan looked the other way – in fact they even helped them.
“Both countries have been equally untrustworthy,” he said. “The US wanted the troops to be on the ground in Pakistan, not Waziristan and the tribal areas, but Pakistan would not allow them. There was a small contingent of CIA that went there but their activities were curtailed. Some of the Corp Commanders said they didn’t have any choice but that they could not trust them.
So is the trust to be built between Pakistan and the US?
“The government which was ‘installed’ to power in Afghanistan after 9/11 was largely dominated by Northern Alliance,” he reiterated. “Over the past 40 years Pakistan had been supporting particular groups. For instance in the Soviet-war era Pakistan supported Gulbadin Hikmatyar, and from 90s they supported the Taliban, so the two countries’ governments were automatically polarized.”
Hussain said that Northern Alliance were backed by Iran and India, so the Northern Alliance government was always taken as anti-Pakistan.
“When US went to Afghanistan, they hardly had any understanding of that country,” informed Hussain. “They did not understand the politics, they did not understand the region, and they relied on Pakistan for the information. The US thought they had defeated the Taliban and the war had been won in Afghanistan, and they diverted their attention to Iraq. And by 2005 that’s when the whole situation started going downhill – the second phase of the Afghan war started.”
He said when President Obama came to power in 2009, Afghanistan seems to have been lost.
“Here were 70,000 troops there without an exit plan. Obama gave a deadline and that was a most foolish thing to do because it gave the Taliban time. Pakistan had strong security concerns and the US did not understand it. Some of the security concerns may have been exaggerated, but some were genuine. For example, whatever happened in Afghanistan had a direct bearing on Pakistan, and so it could not distance itself from the situation,” he said. “Another security concern was that Northern Alliance was too close to India and there is a fear that Indian influence in Afghanistan had created a security problem in Pakistan and so the old fear of being surrounded by eastern and western sides hounded us. And that’s one of the reasons why Pakistan kept supporting factions of Taliban. Either supported it or looked to the other side.”
The Pak-US relationship was supposed to be a strategic one but was actually transactional from the outset.
Then in 2011, there came a turning point, and there was a complete reset of relations. The Raymond Davis incident happened, and then Osama bin Laden’s death, and the most serious one was the Salala incident where 20 soldiers and officers were killed because of US bombing. After that, said Hussain, the relationship had almost broken down. Pakistan stopped the supply line to NATO. After a while things settled down. But for several months America refused to even apologize for what they had done.
After that it was decided that it would be purely transactional. Pakistan’s importance for US was only through Afghanistan. Pakistan could help in some way in a US exit strategy. It was a positive development that Pakistan though that only a political solution could come out of the Afghanistan situation, and despite Trump’s erratic policies, he took these negotiations seriously and consistently.
“I think the US and Pakistan are still miles apart,” said Hussain. “It’s very ironic that while Afghanistan has always been the main cause of tension between the US and Pakistan over 20 years, it has also been a cause for them to stay together…however there is still little understanding as to what Pakistan’s concerns are.”
Zahid Hussain said that there had been some positive politics also.
In 2020, an agreement between the US and Taliban was a big step forward. That had created a way for some kind of possible political solution for Afghanistan. But the real cause for concern is whether the afghan government and the Taliban reach some sort of political solution which would be much tougher than Taliban-US negotiations.
“It will not be easy to change the feelings created during a 20 year war against each other,” he said. “That’s why the Afghan dialogue has not gone anywhere. For the sake of peace in Afganistan, they will have to come to some kind of political solution which is not going to be easy. Even before that there needs to be a ceasefire. If you enter into a substantive negotiation there is a need for ceasefire.”
He said that after the Doha agreement the Taliban are not attacking US forces but they are attacking the Afghan forces. However the most serious thing to happen in Afghanistan is the rise of Daesh which does not want any peace in Afghanistan and this long term threat must be realized by both government and Taliban.
“The US is not going to stay in Afghanistan, and Joe Biden has made it very clear,” he said. “There has been 40 years of baggage and mistrust on all parts.
It is also that the Afghan problem is not just an internal one. External damage has been very strong in the Afghan conflict, and to maintain peace, a regional understanding will also be needed.”
“Traditionally US Pakistan relationship has always been a military to military one. When the civilian government came it tried to change the tack. But it is clear where the actual balance of power lies in Pakistan. And while the US supported the civilian government they always looked towards the military. It is also that the military has always taken care of the country’s foreign policy.
We also have to see the change in regional politics. Pakistan needs to have a good relation with the US but it should stop seeing what the US-India relationship is like in comparison for instance. India for US is now a strategic ally; China has already been declared a main competitor of the US. Pakistan will have to balance all its foreign relations.
For US we will remain important but for different reasons. There is a lot of scope for economic cooperation. We would like access to American market, for example.”