Philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal had once explained the geostrategic position of Afghanistan in a Persian poem: Asia is comparable to a living body. The heart that beats inside the body is one of the homeland of Afghans. The destruction of Afghans would be the destruction of Asia. In their (Afghans’) progress and prosperity lies the wellbeing of Asia.
This idea leaves room to explore Iqbal’s thinking if one would want to discover the future of Asia. It would begin with an in-depth insight into the past and present of Afghanistan and its neighbouring states. Some important events that took place in the last two decades in this region could be useful.
Whenever the origins of the Taliban will be dug up, their creation will date back to the middle of the last decade of the 20th century — 1994, to be precise. At that time, Pakistan backed the Afghan Taliban and an American oil company, Unocal, financed the Talibs to convert their militia into its “pipeline police”. India was then supporting the Northern Alliance and thus, Iqbal’s “heart” of Asia was polluted with regional and international bacteria, thus depriving the Afghan homeland of the fulfilment of Iqbal’s prophecy.
The last decade of the 20th century, particularly 1999, brought upon us the Kargil War and created further tension between Pakistan and India. This time, the Mullah Omar-led Taliban regime openly supported Pakistan against India. This conflict led to regime change in Pakistan. A few weeks later, an Indian plane was hijacked, and that drama ended in Afghanistan with the release of three Pakistani and Kashmiri militants. This was followed by al-Qaeda’s attacks in New York and Washington DC on 9/11, which not only brought Afghanistan upfront on the world map but also created tumultuous changes inside that country. The Taliban were pushed out of Kabul, which hardly made a difference to their strength. The toughest war in history had begun.
The bottomline would always be the hurtful truth — the war itself never brought an ounce worth of peace. Rather, the double games played by regional and international powers created more terror and extremism. Osama bin Laden was killed, but Mullah Omar is still at large and now busy in indirect talks with the US. Al-Qaeda is far from being dismantled.
In a recent development, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced on September 4, 2014 the establishment of a South Asian franchise of al-Qaeda, led by Maulana Asim Umar. Asim is an Indian citizen. He spent the last couple of years with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Now he is a threat to not only India and Afghanistan but also Pakistan. Unfortunately, these three countries lack a joint strategy to fight their common enemies. Afghanistan has become a proxy battleground for India and Pakistan, whose security establishments fail to understand that a proxy war there will only benefit their common enemies. Do decision-makers on both sides of the India-Pakistan border still live in the past?
India produced the Prithvi missile years ago. The name takes one back to the 12th century — to Prithviraj Chauhan, a Hindu king who defeated Afghan ruler Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori in 1191. Pakistan got the wrong message. Within years, it launched the Ghori missile, because Ghori defeated Prithviraj in 1192. For Pakistan and India, this was just the beginning of throwing historical references at each other. Pakistan launched another ballistic missile, the Ghaznavi, named after Mahmud Ghazni — an Afghan ruler who had attacked India about 17 times. Pakistan launched yet another short-range ballistic missile named after Ahmad Shah Abdali, known in India for the third battle of Panipat in 1761. Without doubt, many great warriors were born in Afghanistan. But many great Sufis were also born there.
The warriors are controversial, but the Sufis are not. They spread the message of peace in this region. Hazrat Ali Hajveri came to Lahore from Ghazni in Afghansitan. His follower, Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, came to Delhi from Herat in Afghanistan. These Sufis still enjoy respect in the whole region from followers of different religions. While many of the warriors are not our common heroes, the Sufis are a binding factor between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
The security of Pakistan lies in the security of Afghanistan. It would not be wrong to say that this formula works the other way as well. Instability in these two countries is not in India’s interest either. We cannot change our history but we can make joint effort to create a new history. The only thing we need as a prerequisite is peace.
Think about the world in 2034. It will have more people than can be effectively sustained by the planet. It will also be short on affordable energy, food and water. South Asia may face big ecological threats in the next 20 years. The Siachen glacier, where the Indian and Pakistani armies are pitched against each other, will melt in the near future if our armies don’t leave the area. South Asian countries need to sensitise their people about these problems. How can they face the common problems of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, population growth, rapid urbanisation, terrorism and corruption?
First, Pakistan and India must join hands to bring peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan has over a 2,400-km-long border with Afghanistan. More than three million Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan. They are ripe for recruitment by the Afghan Taliban. They need direction, motivation and a policy that could help their families. Horrific as it sounds, this problem has a very simple solution — the refugees should go back to their homeland so they can live in peace.
The good news for India is that if the Afghan Taliban are ready to talk to the US, some positive vibes could flow. Pakistan should not try to give the impression that there can be no peace in Afghanistan without its active involvement. Both India and Pakistan should try not to increase their military influence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Nato troops. They must, instead, try to increase mutual trade via Afghanistan and make their geostrategic agenda more economy-centric.
One can also not underplay the roles of Iran and China in building Afghanistan. India is building Iran’s first deep-water port, Chabahar, on the Makran coast. India is connecting this port with Afghanistan. The Chabahar port will give India access to not only Afghanistan but also Central Asia. China is building Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan, only 72 nautical miles southeast of Chabahar. China will link this port with both Afghanistan and its Xinjiang province. These two ports will be very important for Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. They should not be used for military activity, but trade. Some experts say there will be three big challenges for India in the next 20 years — China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There will be three big challenges for Pakistan, too — India, Afghanistan and Iran. Instead of becoming challenges for each other, why can’t these countries become supportive and peaceful partners?
Pakistan and Afghanistan can become beneficiaries of good relations between China and India. All regional players need to formulate a strict policy of non-interference in Afghanistan. This policy can convert Afghanistan into the Switzerland of Asia. Pakistan, Afghanistan and India can meet common challenges with a common strategy.
Let us include Iran and China in Saarc and move towards a common market. Indian films are popular in Pakistan and Pakistani singers are popular in Afghanistan. There is another binding force, and that is cricket. The game is becoming very popular in Afghanistan. Pakistan and India play cricket matches in Dubai. They can also play in Kabul. There is a big stadium in Kabul. Afghans are capable of organising an international cricket event.
South Asian countries must open the doors of their educational institutions to each other. Many Pakistanis and Afghans would love to study at the Darul Uloom Deoband in India. We can explore possibilities for joint education projects. The three countries can defeat terrorism and extremism with the help of education, cricket and music. Forget strategic depth and countering each other in Afghanistan. Make a joint policy to control the smuggling of arms and narcotics. Let that be the first step. The rest can be smoothed out.
I have extensively travelled in Afghanistan in the last two decades. It is undergoing rapid change. The new unity government in Kabul is a shining symbol of that change. I have seen Pakistanis and Indians working together in Afghanistan — from partnerships in small ventures to big projects. Policymakers in India and Pakistan must realise that a proxy war in Afghanistan would destabilise the whole region. The people of India and Pakistan have started collaborating with each other in Afghanistan. They are defying the policies of those who order the shelling along the India-Pakistan border. The new Switzerland of Asia can become a joint victory for India and Pakistan. If Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi can share the Nobel peace prize, surely India and Pakistan can also share a victory against extremism in Afghanistan.
The writer is executive editor of Geo TV, Pakistan
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