STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan
It was August 2002 when I last visited Kabul. I was accompanied by Niaz Ali Shah, a scion of the Syed family of Peshawar. His father, Syed Taj Mir Shah was a loving elder who mentored me when we were organizing PTI in KP in late nineties. He left us early spending his final days in Shaukat Khanum Hospital, Lahore. He was really weakened by his ailment and I used to visit him regularly. During one such visit, Shah sb held my hand and beckoned Niaz (Niazi to friends and family) to come closer. His words still ring in my ears as if freshly uttered. He said “Hafeez my eldest son is a bit wild but has a heart of gold. I am leaving so promise me you will take care of him as an elder brother.” Tears welled up in my eyes and I found a younger brother. The relationship endures till today.
Our host in Kabul was Hashmat Ghani, younger brother of President Ashraf Ghani. He received us at the airport and we drove to his residence in a heavily fortified convoy. From behind the bullet proof windows, I saw Kabul’s scarred landscape full of destroyed buildings. Those that were left standing were pock marked like the face of a person who had suffered small pox. The resilient city had survived the Russian invasion, the civil war by warlords and Taliban’s first regime. My previous visit to Kabul was thirty years earlier when it was a thriving tourist destination under King Zahir Shah.
Ashraf Ghani was the finance minister of Afghanistan at that juncture. He was also the leader of Pashtun Ahmadzai tribe dotted all along Southern Afghanistan. Since he was caught up in affairs of the Government, Hashmat was the ex-officio head of the clan. We spent nearly a week there. It was a deep dive for me into Afghan culture, traditions and real life politics; whether chatting in Hashmat’s well defended villa in Green Zone or his farmhouse south of Kabul. NATO forces were on the ascendency and Taliban had dissipated into hiding.
Fast forward twenty years NATO and US forces have departed. Two decades of occupation failed to entrench Western style democracy. The 300,000 strong armed forces built and trained by them are collapsing like sand castles when faced with battle-hardened Taliban. As I write this article, 18 out of 34 Provincial headquarters have been occupied by Taliban. Fierce fighting is raging in Mazar-e-Sharif, the Northern bastion of anti-Taliban forces. In the South, the 2nd largest city Kandahar is besieged. After a breakthrough in these cities, Taliban’s encirclement of Kabul will earnestly begin tightening the noose around the final power center.
The present talks in Doha between Taliban and Ghani regime are not making much headway despite efforts of US’s top negotiator and all stakeholders. Envoys from Britain, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, United Nations and European Union are attending. Even an Indian delegation has joined. Taliban are more assertive as they gain ground and Afghan delegation is digging in their heels. All conflicts end up being resolved around a table. The present lack of progress shows that time has not come. Realities on ground will determine the bargaining chips for each side.
This conflict is severely impacting Pakistan. As the balance tilts against Afghan Government, they and their promoters’ squeeze on Pakistan is tightening. Both are seeking to dump their failures on our doorsteps pushing us to join their efforts in multiple ways. Use of air bases, removing our border restrictions, pressuring Taliban to cease fire are some of their demands. Pakistan is clear in its stand; “we will be partners in peace not war”. This stance has unleashed propaganda machines seeking to demonize Pakistan led by India, who has the most to lose in a Kabul regime change.
If Pakistan wilts under this pressure and allows refugees to enter freely what will stop the terrorists to sneak in to create havoc in our territory? Multiple organizations nurtured by Indians and Afghan intelligence are seeking this opening to carry out their nefarious activities.
Pakistan can ill-afford a refugee influx. It will further strain its already fragile economy, which hosts 3 million Afghans. We are battling COVID’s Delta strain that originated in India and is now a global threat. The country is already battling food inflation that is crushing its citizens. More mouths to feed will only aggravate this dire situation.
Food shortages leading to inflation are an endemic problem arising from exploding population. Acreage available to grow food cannot increase; the solution lies in controlling population growth and increased productivity. A reality we need to confront on an emergency footing.
To top it all, we have a disruptive opposition which does not give a damn for national interests. They are pursuing their selfish motives projecting Pakistan as deeply divided and an unstable State. This will only weaken our position while facing the external pressures. The need of the hour is national unity to confront the huge challenges ahead of us. Instead PDM seems hell bent to tarnish our image through disruption.
There is an urgent need to re-tool our system of governance to remain on course of raising Pakistan out of the poverty trap. It’s a must do to move into the category of a progressive and developing nation. Pakistanis need to come together despite all the disruptionists.