Ghani’s Still Pakistan’s Best Bet

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Daniel Berehulak

‘Afghanistan is more than the “graveyard of empires.”’ Maureen Dowd once said, ‘It’s the mother of vicious circles.’

While Ms. Dowd fails to point out her country’s complicity in said circles, her words ring true: ever since the other Dowd – the Russians’ sacrificial lamb Daud Khan – Afghanistan has only seen war.

Yet even by Afghan standards, Ashraf Ghani just can’t catch a break. The presidency has long been the most thankless job in the world, but today’s odds are without end. With those in mind, perhaps, did Mr. Ghani lambast Pakistan at the Heart of Asia Conference.

Islamabad would do better, he said, to spend our development aid on fighting terror instead. And though Pakistan’s pundits were quick to whale back at an ‘ingrate’ and ‘incompetent’, it may be best to breathe. Before we bash the man, let’s take a trip in his shoes.

To start with, the Taliban are in ascent everywhere, having snatched up around 40 percent of the country, more territory than at any other time in the war. Much of the Pakistani Taliban too – squashed by Zarb-e-Azb back home – are regrouping as ISIS, and turning on Kabul.

Then there’s all the rest of them: around a fifth of the world’s terror orgs have lain down roots in Afghanistan, says the US’s General Nicholson (another ironic source).

Speaking of the Americans, the US is mentally making for the door. Before he backtracked, then went back on the backtracking, Donald Trump summed it up thus: ‘(…) it’s a mess. It’s a mess. And at this point, you probably have to (stay) because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave.’

Yes, ‘that thing’ again: in the grand tradition of taking Afghanistan apart and leaving, Mr. Trump echoes another Republican hero, George H.W. Bush. With the Kremlin gone (but Kabul ablaze), Mr. Bush reportedly asked his cabinet, ‘Is “that thing” still going on?’

As we ready ourselves for more of that thing, we get to everything else: the Afghan National Army’s attrition rate is among the highest in the world, owing to deaths and desertions. The drug trade is booming like never before (courtesy Mr. Karzai’s friends and relatives).

Kabul, meanwhile, is as much a slow-motion palace coup as ever: coalition partner Abdullah Abdullah is chomping at the bit – having called Mr. Ghani ‘unfit to lead’ before making nice again. Hamid Karzai too waits in the wings, plotting his return. Part of the problem is that Mr. Ghani is too busy with the grand business of reform than, as The Post put it, ‘(indulging) in the tea-drinking chats with elders and ethnic strongmen that enabled (Karzai) to hold together a divided society.’

And that’s just Mr. Ghani’s rivals – his own personnel choices are no better. The president sacked seven ministers over four days last month, cutting the legs off a government already buckling. Yet at the same time, he has reached out to gents that belong in padded cells, not the presidency: acid-throwing Gulbuddin and enemy-roasting Dostum.

Doubtless, one wouldn’t wish Mr. Ghani’s problems on their worst enemy: many are of his own making, but most have been inherited – courtesy America’s longest war ever. He is struggling, and Pakistan should care.

Firstly, both need the other. Mr. Ghani may huff and puff and say the Taliban wouldn’t last ‘a month’ without Pakistan’s support, but that is as much for Amritsar as it is for an electorate that has seen relentless violence this year. The idea of an on/off switch in ‘Pindi is soothing, until one realizes that the Taliban hold staggering amounts of territory far removed from FATA. Their single greatest victory – Kunduz – was on the opposite end from the Durand (in real life, Kuduz actually shares a border with Tajikistan, not Pakistan).

That said, Pakistan is no angel in this equation, and it needs to speed up what it’s already put in motion. Our hangover from the ‘90s, which Generals Beg and Babar spent playing with Afghan lives, has come at a terrible price. Fast-forward to 2016 and we’ve managed to crawl out of the hole – taking on all manner of militants.

But it’s time to stand up now: if Pakistan doesn’t clean up against Afghanistan’s enemies, it cannot compel Kabul to go after Islamabad’s (after all, Kabul can’t even go after Kabul’s). And Pakistan – still fighting its own awful war – should be allowed the time and space to move forward on its own terms, especially by the do-more crowd.

On the other hand, if indeed we’re hedging our bets and waiting it out (in the same nature as Russia’s recent contact with the Taliban), then we’ve learnt nothing – giving passage to the same strain of extremist that maim and murder our children.

Consider, also, that Mr. Ghani is still at the table. In an interview with The Hindu – in which Suhasini Haidar spent more time on Pakistan than either Afghanistan or India – the president said, ‘I engaged Pakistan, I went there and not only visited the civilian leadership but with the military leadership…my message was that there was window. It could be broadened to a door or a corridor, or it could be shut…it’s their turn to open it.’

Ms. Haidar threw the kitchen sink at him: was he complicit in CPEC? Had India and Afghanistan unsuccessfully ‘come together’ in isolating Pakistan? Would Chahbahar be a solid alternative to Gwadar? On and on it went – a bizarre line of questioning premised less on Kabul and Delhi improving ties, than hurting and snubbing Islamabad.

Through it all, Mr. Ghani sat on the fence, offering zen nothings. ‘One corridor is not against another’, and he’d no intention ‘to isolate Pakistan’. He just wanted peace, he said, to rebuild his country.

Like Nawaz Sharif, Mr. Ghani realizes that Indo-Pak isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s a pity that Narendra Modi, and the recently cowed Indian press, don’t think so.

Finally, Ashraf Ghani is not Hamid Karzai. He does not harbor an irrational hatred for Pakistan, like Abdullah. He is not a mass-murderer like Najib. He is not a crazed revolutionary like Amin. As an earnest (if inept) micromanager, The New Yorker compared him to Jimmy Carter – a comparison unthinkable of any recent Afghan leader. His reaching out to Islamabad was our best chance in a generation.

And in doing so, it was Ashraf Ghani that said, ‘We will not permit the past to destroy the future.’

We would do best to heed those words, before our future becomes more of the past.