Afghanistan has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s foreign policy for at least thirty of the last forty years of our history. Triggered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in December of 1979, and followed by the rise, then fall, and then rise again of the Taliban over the next four decades, Afghanistan has cast a deep and lasting shadow on the social and political fabric of Pakistan. Over the course of this saga, Pakistan has continued to host more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees, who directly impact our national resource allocation and societal temperament. Most importantly perhaps, an entire generation of Pakistanis have grown up in a world that transacts with Pakistan through the lens of Afghan war. And even now, when foreign forces have finally fled Afghanistan, Pakistan finds itself as the critical nexus for survival of Afghan people, while making ensuring that seeds of violence and terrorism do not take root in the Afghan soil.
In these circumstances, Pakistan, its stakeholders, and its allies must comprehend the ‘new’ Afghanistan, and its ‘fresh’ Taliban leadership. Understanding historical perspective, in this regard, is important; however, past solutions and outdated strategies are not likely to ‘fix’ the Afghan issues. As such, Pakistan’s policymakers need to comprehensively review Afghanistan’s socio-political realities anew and develop novel strategies for lasting peace in the region.
To this end, my dear friend and colleague, Habib Akram, has written a much-needed book, titled “Hum, Taliban, aur Afghanistan” (Us, Taliban and Afghanistan), which should be made compulsory reading for anyone interested in Afghan policy. This book—a fast-paced narration and context of Afghanistan’s new ground realities—is based on Habib’s extensive consultations with the relevant stakeholders in Afghanistan, along with interesting anecdotes from his travels through the country. It would be pertinent to mention that, as the American’s left Afghanistan in August of 2021, Habib Akram was among the very first journalists from Pakistan who rushed to Kabul, spoke first-hand to people on the streets, met with members of the Taliban leadership, and interacted with international stakeholders in the region. Habib’s intrepid reporting from Kabul, on the eve of Taliban forming a government in Afghanistan, was among the only credible and unbiased accounts of the ‘facts on ground’ in that country. And this aspect, of being closest to the ground realities, threads itself throughout his book.
In the wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan, in 2001, the West has authored innumerable strategy papers, books, and anecdotal accounts on Afghanistan. Almost all such literature was produced in languages that are foreign to our region and was authored in the ink of imperial hubris. History bears witness to the fact that all think-tanks of the West, and all their strategic thinking, could not accurately predict the nature of Afghan society and its tribal realities. The pace and manner in which the American-installed government of Afghanistan dissipated, leaving behind a trail of local tragedies, shows the lack of regional understanding in West’s coloured analysis of Afghanistan. Disconnected with local language, or tribal realities, the world neither saw the capitulation of Ashraf Ghani’s puppet government, nor was able to react in a deliberate manner when it was happening.
In contrast, Habib Akram’s book – the first of its kind written in Urdu—is far closer to the truth of Afghanistan (and Pakistan). Parsed into chapters relating to the historical rise of the Taliban, its fresh reconstitution after the American invasion, the interplay of banned outfits such as Al-Qaeda, and the framework within with negotiations between the Americans and the Taliban took place, provide a comprehensive context for the final crescendo of the book. This crescendo, encapsulating the unanticipated collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government and fears about Taliban rule, reads like a novel. Habib provides important first-hand details of the manner in which Pakistan’s embassy in Afghanistan negotiated the difficult days following August 15, 2021, while highlighting the role and impact of key individuals such as Gulbadin Hikmatyar and Mullah Noor-ud-Din Turabi.
Finally, Habib takes on the more lasting questions of the Afghan crisis: have the Taliban changed during the past twenty years? Will their government be any different from the one they had in the 1990s? What rules will they need to abide by, in order to gain acceptance in the modern world? Can they survive without being integrated into the global economic system? What opportunities lie beyond the horizon, in terms of trade? How important will connectivity with Central Asia be, for the future of Afghanistan? Can Afghanistan, an otherwise land-locked country, function as a sustainable corridor of trade and regional connectivity? Or will the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan result in more tragedies for the young and upcoming generation of Afghans?
These are uncertain times for our region. We live in the flux of history that is yet to settle the rules of engagement hereon. The unipolar world, led by America alone, is now a memory of the past. New power centres and fresh alliances are taking shape in our region. Going forward, China and Russia are likely to play a much more important role in the happening of this region, than America and its allies from across three continents. Amidst the flux, we need deliberate and purposeful policy thinking—in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. And Habib Akram’s book is the first tangible step in this direction. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the region, and for all those in-charge of making domestic and foreign policies in Pakistan.
Importantly, more people, with dispassionate and unbiased views, must follow in Habib’s example. We need more literature on the issue, in local language, through local sources, which reflects the realities on ground. While congratulating Habib on this exceptional work, I pray that his efforts are the first of many such intellectual discourses that emanate from our region.