From Kabul, with love

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Daniel Berehulak 

He wanted it to be like France and Germany, he said. Or he tweeted as much: ’10yrs from now, v want to be n a France-Germany type of relationship with Pakistan.’

For 140 characters, it was a lot to digest. A France-Germany type of relationship: Merkel and Hollande smiling at each other, issuing joint postage stamps, commemorating their 50th as Europe’s original odd couple. There are hiccups, yes — France continues to turn its nose up at austerity. Germany, far and away the E.U.’s severest son, tells the French to get in line.

And yet, for two nations that have bled each other since time began, this is progress. So tightly have Berlin and Paris embraced each other, bad economies are tolerable (and war impossible).

‘Europeans have a special view of German-French relations,’ Mr. Hollande said recently. ‘When we get along, they are afraid it will be to their detriment. And when we do not get along, they realise then that it is to their detriment.’ Might we say the same for our part of the world? Might we agree, as Ashraf Ghani does, to that sort of relationship?

Cynics on both sides wondered who the Germans were. Realists asked for a comparison that didn’t bring up some of the worst wars since ever — Napoleon flicking away the Prussians; Hitler dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

One may look to the idealists instead. Whatever Mr. Ghani’s intentions were, he’s made a statement: big, brave, and audacious — the stuff relationship resets are made of.

Not that both parties haven’t grasped as much. What we’re seeing on our screens would have been unimaginable months back: G.H.Q. plying the President of Afghanistan a full guard of honour; a visibly genial handshake with P.M. Sharif. Taking a break from taking a break, even Mamnoon Hussain was made to speak whole sentences in light of the occasion.

Not to be missed is the personal warmth between Mr. Sharif and Mr. Ghani because, on one level, our leaders are already as suited to each other as the Germans and French… if around the World Wars.

It’s hard to forget the car-crash of a relationship between General Musharraf and Hamid Karzai, all glaring and pouting respectively. The general once called Karzai an ostrich, appropriately at a dinner in his honour. As for Karzai, he displayed the sort of emotional consistency one associates with a mild drug problem (and the U.N.’s Peter Galbraith said as much in public).

To go darker, there’s the surreal conversation between General Zia and Comrade Taraki in Paghman, on the exact lines the holy war would be waged. ‘In our new system, individuals do not matter,’ Taraki had said. ‘They can be changed or replaced. It is the Party which counts.’ Countered General Zia, ‘As Muslims, we believe that all land belongs to Almighty Allah, and man is His custodian on earth.’

‘All land belongs to the tiller,’ Taraki deadpanned. It was a conversation that took 10 years to end; the jihad never did.

Compare this to the sweet sounds the two states made the past week — Messrs Sharif and Ghani watching Afghanistan ‘A’ wallop Pakistan ‘A’ in a cricket friendly — and it seems the past can be put to bed.

It will take a while for us to look like France and Germany. But we should be thankful that, for the briefest of moments, we don’t look like Pakistan and Afghanistan either.

Mr. Ghani thinks so. Along with the snappy soundbite (‘We will not permit the past to destroy the future’), Mr. Ghani has also brought a vision for tomorrow. At the Pak-Afghan trade and investment forum, he spoke with the economic fluency of an ex-World Banker: backing firm property rights, turning money into capital, lamenting the import-export ratio, and fleshing out financial instruments to facilitate cross-border trade. The Pakistani business community, he has stressed not once nor twice, requires bringing in from the cold.

The Pakistani business community, for its part, has welcomed Mr. Ghani just by dint of his not being Mr. Karzai. More importantly, he also isn’t Abdullah Abdullah, a bullet we dodged in September. A Massoud man, Mr. Abdullah — for obvious reasons — detests Islamabad, and the feeling is mutual.

But aren’t those the same sounds his predecessor made, our usual righties ask? And hasn’t Islamabad always talked up peace, the Afghans say, and sowed the exact opposite over the border?

No and no. Mr. Ghani’s unprecedented words are matched only by the Pakistan Army’s unprecedented action: Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been clearing the region harder and heavier than any that has come before.

Begged to do it for years and years, the army’s change in chief has meant a change in resolve: Pakistan is fighting for its future in North Waziristan. That means, the army tells us, ‘terrorists of all shades’. And while the J.I. & Friends warned of imminent doom if we did, fatalities have dropped a staggering 68 per cent. Remember those talks with Professor Ibrahim? Not the best idea, in retrospect.

But if Pakistan’s opened its fist, the president has reached out as well. As this goes to press, Mr. Ghani has vowed to dismantle terrorist rat-holes on his side of the border, harbouring the likes of Fazlullah and company.

As a statesman, Mr. Ghani isn’t perfect: his allies include everyone’s favourite warlord Abdur Rashid Dosum, whom the Fulbright scholar called a killer as late as 2009. Action against militants holed up in Kunar has yet to bear fruit. But it’s not pushing it to say Pakistan and Afghanistan are striking a better chord with each other, as partners in peace, than they have in 13 years.

In his magisterial book on the country (albeit slanted, if you will, against poor Pakistan), Peter Tomsen jots down a checklist for an ideal Afghanistan in 2020. Right at the top of the list, we read:

The blowback of terror has ‘convinced the Pakistani military to end its proxy war in Afghanistan,’ and perhaps, theirs in ours, and that the two neighbours ‘have normalised their relations.’ An American withdrawal is also mentioned as the fourth point — when it should have been the first. With Ashraf Ghani, all that seems much more possible.

It will take a while for us to look like France and Germany. But we should be thankful that, for the briefest of moments, we don’t look like Pakistan and Afghanistan either.

%d bloggers like this: