Speaking at a business conference in Islamabad the other day, National Security Adviser Lieutenant General Nasser Janjua (retd) dwelt at length with the Afghan war as it affects Pakistan, expressing the lament that this country’s contribution to the war against terrorism, at the cost of tremendous sacrifices, is not appreciated. Instead, it is accused of playing a double game vis-a-vis the Taliban because, according to him, the true picture is not being presented before the world.
He also used the opportunity to claim had Pakistan not stood against the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, that country would have been wiped out of existence, and further that the US is a sole superpower due to the countless sacrifices rendered by Pakistan.
The reality though is far more complex. When the US launched its second war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 atrocity, Pakistan was caught in its blowback because of geographical location and ethno-blood ties between the tribes living astride the Pak-Afghan border. What happened in Afghanistan was not to stay within its borders. The war spilled over to the then ungoverned tribal areas, radicalising local tribesmen leading to the emergence of various jihadist groups who in due time got together under the banner of TTP, with devastating consequences for this state and society.
These jihadists have killed an estimated 70,000 Pakistanis, a vast majority of them ordinary civilians, and maimed countless others while the US’ military deaths in its longest war since Vietnam till the 2016 drawdown were only 2,386. Despite paying a heavy price, Pakistan gets blamed for US-led Nato forces failure to win the war against the Afghan Taliban. In fact, it is reproached for hedging its bets based on the surmise that the US would ultimately leave Afghanistan – as it did after winning its first proxy war there – while Afghan Taliban were an enduring reality and hence had to be treated differently from the Pakistani Taliban the war produced.
The US may not be ready yet to leave Afghanistan, but it has also come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve the conflict is a negotiated settlement, and has been in on-off-and-on-again talks with them, starting from the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, a round of talks hosted by Pakistan in Murree, and now in a quadrilateral forum. Russia and China are making parallel efforts talking to the Taliban, and organising international conferences with the participation of Pakistan and some other regional countries.
General Janjua’s assertions, nonetheless, about Pakistan’s role in the first US war against the erstwhile Soviet Union in Afghanistan hold important questionable claims. First of all, there is enough documentary evidence to prove that the Soviet troops arrived there on the request – permissible under international law – of the then government in Kabul; and contrary to the propaganda that the erstwhile USSR’s quest for warm water ports had inspired its ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan it had no intention to cross the Durand Line. Second and more important, the outcome of this country’s effort is not something to be proud of.
While the Afghan ‘jihad’ – as it is called – gave a bloody nose to the US’ rival power, it also happens to be genesis of religion-inspired violent extremist groups from al Qaeda (a part of which was to later morph into IS and some other militant organisations) to Afghan Taliban, and the TTP. PTI Chairman Imran Khan, addressing a different session of the same conference where Janjua expressed his thoughts, rightly said that Pakistan’s participation in the Afghan jihad was a blunder of the Zia regime. Pakistan, he explained, first produced jihadists for this war but later had to fight against those very jihadists during the war on terror, suffering huge losses.
The question is whether Pakistan confronts a somewhat similar situation with the appointment of former Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif as the head of a Saudi-led military alliance, which is feared to drag Pakistan into yet another outsiders fight for dominance.
The National Security Adviser has sought to defend the government decision to approve the appointment, mindful of the dangers involved he felt it necessary to aver that General Sharif enjoys a good relationship with Iran and that he would maintain the required “delicate balance”. Striking a ‘delicate balance’ will be a herculean task for him. The US strikes on the Syrian airbase and increased Russia-Iran support to Bashar al-Assad will surely translate into some new challenges to the head of Sunni military coalition.