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Afghanistaning ourselves

Has the state-building exercise undertaken by the US and its allies in Afghanistan failed? It sure seems like it. We have witnessed a tumultuous Karzai era, followed by a tumultuous Ghani-Abdullah era. In between, we’ve witnessed botched elections, constitutional amendments, delayed reforms, and a jet-stream off scorched-earth terror attacks by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network that have taken hundreds of innocent lives.

We’ve witnessed the destruction of hospitals and homes by US forces, explained away by heat of the moment decision-making. Of course, most of all, we’ve witnessed the slow burn that the instability in Afghanistan has helped foment here at home in Pakistan, as we enter the second decade of our own long war with anti-state violent extremists.

The failed American state-building exercise in Afghanistan should not be a big surprise. Many in the Muslim world attribute this failure to Uncle Sam’s addiction to deliberately undermine and destroy Muslims societies. This conspiracy theory would make sense if it didn’t collapse under its own weight. No part of the US has any interest in failing in its ventures abroad. The American military-industrial complex is much more damaged by failure, and American hesitation for military expeditions abroad, than it is by success.

American neocons are affronted by the idea of failure in savage lands like ours. American liberals are too wedded to their exceptionalism to concede the stark limitations of their moral empire. The failed American state-building exercise in Afghanistan, therefore, is not part of any grand design. It is a genuine failure, rooted in causes that are relatively easy to track – if we choose to pay attention.

American decision-making in Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, driven by American security concerns, rather than concern for the well-being of the Afghan people. There is nothing wrong with a country pursuing its national security concerns. But there is something badly wrong with the pursuit of national security as the defining thread in an effort to build a new state in a complicated land. Afghanistan is not any more or less complicated than any other country – except that it has been disallowed from shaping its destiny itself. Much of this responsibility falls on the Afghan elite, but there is no theory of Afghanistan of any standing, anywhere, that will not source some of the roots of Afghanistan’s ailments in the policies and decisions of other countries. These days, the drug of choice, when it comes to who is responsible for all of Afghanistan’s ailments, is Pakistan.

Pakistan itself is a remarkable case study of stuttering state-building. On the one hand, as a proud Pakistani, it is worth remembering the amazing resilience and steadfastness of this country – forever on the defensive in an unfriendly and unyielding neighbourhood. On the other hand, as a patriotic Pakistani, all the injustice we have wreaked upon ourselves cannot be forgotten. Perhaps the greatest of these is that we have done to ourselves what the Americans (and we) have done to Afghanistan.

The formula is relatively simple. Give a bunch of really well-trained and highly professional soldiers and spies free reign to ‘reconstruct’ a country. Their intentions and professionalism do not matter – they will fail. This isn’t because soldiers and spies are bad people. It isn’t because they don’t have the best intentions. It is because soldiers and spies are trained to manage security, not irrigation, roads, schools and economic planning. Soldiers and spies are really bad at state-building because they are not trained to build states. They are trained to ‘build’ war.

Building states is not like building wars. When building states, you have to be flexible and tolerant of ideas and people that you would rather not have to deal with. Soldiers and spies are not trained to be good at these things. So in Afghanistan, when the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in each Afghan province were given free rein to reconstruct the country, they failed because they didn’t know how to deal with all the different push and pull factors that shape the dynamic in a village.

And when in Pakistan, the National Reconstruction Bureau was given free rein to reconceptualise the state’s relationship with the citizen, it failed because it didn’t allow for the voices of those that had been most vital in defining that relationship for over fifty years (the civil bureaucracy). Soldiers and spies don’t have the luxury of nuance and flexibility because their decision-making matrices are trained for heat-of-the-moment judgement calls, which often may result in life or death for some or many people.

Many Pakistanis will be offended by the comparison with Afghanistan. So for effect, let me restate the thesis here. Pakistan has done to itself what other countries have ganged up and done to Afghanistan. No greater evidence of this can be found than in our increasingly complex and unsustainable relationship with pro-state, but anti-neighbour violent extremist groups.

After the APS Peshawar terror attack, a great national consensus was forged around the need to declare all anti-state violent extremist groups as being enemy combatants. No longer would the Pakistani state – civil or military – be allowed to dilly-dally with these monstrous groups, which had the blood of innocent children on their hands. Thus began the execution of the National Action Plan, the deepening of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the expansion of the war beyond Fata, first into Balochistan and Karachi and much later even southern Punjab (if we consider the Chotu Group to be as toxic and rabid an entity as the TTP Jamaat ul Ahraar) (sic).

This national consensus, and the positive energy than emanated from the clarity of this consensus, helped drive a year-long process of rejuvenation and renewal in Pakistan. Our collective gloom was slowly allowed to turn into optimism about the national future. By the end of 2015, a year after the Peshawar atrocity, there was a distinctive sense of hope in our national discourse. One of the sources of this hope, implicit as it may have been, was a broad international awareness and acknowledgement that Pakistan was becoming a master of its own destiny once again. No longer would cavemen be allowed to dictate terms to the Muslim world’s most democratic and freest society.

Since the New Year however, a series of events, have cast a deep shadow upon all the positivity of 2015. On the surface, it is easy to blame domestic events for this shadow. Certainly, the Ester Day attack in Lahore was a low point, and certainly deteriorating relations with India after the Pathankot attack muddied the waters. Yet something more fundamental has been taking place for several months, and it culminated with a drone attack in Balochistan in which Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed. Somehow, somewhere, someone in Pakistan decided that Pakistan could afford to continue to allow some violent extremist groups the space to operate here and abroad, whilst continuing to restrict space for other violent extremist groups to operate.

If this decision was taken with some degree of consultation with the countries that are affected by those violent groups, it would be a fine decision. But those countries, namely Afghanistan and the US seem to not only not be on board with such a decision, but also to actively resent it. This resentment cannot and should not be a surprise for Pakistani decision-makers. The Haqqani Network is explicitly named by both countries in virtually every single bilateral and multilateral forum in which they engage with Pakistan.

All of this brings us back to our original sin, here in Pakistan. It is unfair and incongruent for us to expect Pakistan’s brilliant soldiers and spies to be able to understand the arc of history, and the subtleties of statecraft, in the world’s most complicated neighbourhood. This is why we have parliaments, and chief ministers, and ministries of finance, and of course most of all, a prime minister.

If civilian leaders choose to cede every matter of statecraft to soldiers and spies not qualified to lead on those matters, then the responsibility, fairly or unfairly, lies with our elected leaders – most of all, our prime minister. As his health recovers, InshaAllah, PM Sharif would do well to reflect on how he plans to fulfil his responsibility to build the Pakistani state.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Afghanistaning ourselves," The News. 2016-06-07.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Operation Zarb-e-Azb , National action plan , Terrorism , Diplomacy , Bureaucracy , Taliban , Mullah Akhtar Mansour , Pakistan , Afghanistan , APS

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