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How A Persecution Complex Underpins Pakistan's Foreign Policy (Part 1: Afghanistan)

16/06/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Such is the frenzied state of lawmakers in Pakistan today that even a sneeze emanating from New Delhi is enough to upset the balance of power in South Asia. Whether it is news of India's new interceptor missile, or Indian premier Narendra Modi's historic speech to a joint session of the US Congress in June: they all cut like a knife.

Various theories have been put forth to explain this phenomenon. Some suggest the absence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from Islamabad -- of late under fire for his family's offshore accounts as unearthed by the Panama Papers and presently recuperating from open heart surgery in London -- has shifted the rhetorical bull's-eye to India since Members of Parliament (MPs) in Pakistan must somehow justify their bloated perks and paychecks.

[I]nitial attempts to dismember Pakistan by Afghan monarchs and republicans permanently scarred the Pakistani Establishment, thereby planting the seeds of a persecution complex...

The second theory has to do with the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. In its early days especially, until your body gets used to running on low blood sugar, people get "hangry." And when "hangry," these people (politicians included) get their knickers in a twist a lot faster than they normally would, peddling unfounded paranoia and body-shaming fellow female MPs.

Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, though, is a wily old fox, Ramadan or no Ramadan. The former editor of a now-defunct English language newspaper, Sayed is a rare success story among journalists, having parlayed his connections to Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party -- and later to its splinter faction that feigned democratic rule through General Pervez Musharraf's heyday -- into a cushy political career.

Unapologetically pro-China, at least until the cash registers keep ringing, Sayed in a recent statement rued that, "The Indians are encircling us from all sides. Even our immediate neighbours, like Afghanistan and Iran, have gone to India. It's a result of our failed diplomacy and traditionally passive foreign policy." Inadvertently, I'm sure, Sayed laid bare the beating heart of Pakistan's foreign policy since Partition: a deep persecution complex rivalling that of Israel.

By permanently sidelining Pashtun nationalists and secularists that were partial to India... Pakistan yielded a new crop of Afghan leaders: every one anti-India.

Let us pick apart this fascinating statement, starting with Afghanistan. The Afghans made plenty clear in 1947 that they objected to the territorial definition of Pakistan by casting a lone veto against its inclusion in the UN. In many ways, they were projecting their fury at the British Raj onto their new neighbour.

A tacit agreement underpinning the Treaty of Rawalpindi following the Anglo-Afghan Wars was that the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) would revert to Afghan control after the British left India. Instead, a flawed referendum in 1947 made Pashtuns (the majority race of Afghans and those inhabiting now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and its tribal belts) choose between Pakistan and India. There was no third choice. To this day, the controversial Raj-era Durand Line demarcating Pakistan and Afghanistan blights bilateral ties.

Thereafter, and until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the powers-that-be in Kabul actively stoked separatism among Pashtun and Baloch nationalists in Pakistan, aiding and abetting plans to carve out a new state of "Pashtunistan." Storied Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan, like his father Bacha Khan before him, became the poster politician for this movement, often landing himself in jail on charges of conspiracy against the state.

Pakistan eventually paid the human cost of rewiring Afghan society courtesy of an ideological spillover that spawned the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)...

These initial attempts to dismember Pakistan by Afghan monarchs and republicans permanently scarred the Pakistani Establishment, thereby planting the seeds of a persecution complex that would shape Pak-Afghan relations for decades afterwards. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto kick-started Pakistan's counterattack in 1973 by instituting an "Afghan Cell" inside the foreign office, with the express purpose of identifying and arming Islamic dissidents in Afghanistan opposed to Sardar Daud Khan's regime.

The anti-Soviet jihad was another godsend for Pakistan. It allowed the Establishment, with Washington's blessings now that everyone was pals fighting the "ungodly commies," to inextricably fasten itself to Afghanistan's political future by manipulating the war theatre to Pakistan's advantage. By permanently sidelining Pashtun nationalists and secularists that were partial to India from the days of King Amanullah, Pakistan yielded a new crop of Afghan leaders: all virulent Islamists and every one anti-India.

This strategy worked well with Pakistan's own brand of Islamic nationalism; a way to paper over its lopsided federation built on ethnic groups that deeply distrusted each other. That the Kalabagh Dam, a direly needed hydropower plant in an energy-starved country, never got off the drawing board exemplifies this distrust.

[A] stable, democratic Afghanistan would invite increased Indian "encirclement" west of its borders in the shape of increased trade and military ties. That is unacceptable for the Establishment.

Still, to make doubly sure that Afghanistan could never again threaten Pakistan's geography, the Establishment cast a wide net of spies westward of the Durand Line charged with buying and retaining the loyalties of warlords that could be used as pawns to destabilize future Afghan governments. "Strategic depth," they called it.

Sadly, it's hard to tame Frankenstein, and Pakistan eventually paid the human cost of rewiring Afghan society courtesy of an ideological spillover that spawned the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Punjabi Taliban and wrought 50,000 civilian deaths.

All the while, Islamabad kept assuring Washington of its sincerity in closing the Afghan insurgency, acutely aware that a stable, democratic Afghanistan would invite increased Indian "encirclement" west of its borders in the shape of increased trade and military ties. That is unacceptable for the Establishment, no matter how you slice it.

Consequently, this foreign policy moored to a persecution complex will forever prevent peace in Afghanistan until (a) Pakistan's blue-eyed boys the Taliban are back in power, or (b) the militants make a clean break with Islamabad to pursue a peace deal with the US that grants them provincial autonomy. Either way, Sayed is wrong. There is nothing remotely "passive" about Pakistan's Afghan policy and there never was. It is, however, a set-piece that may be long past its sell-by date.

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