The road to peace in Afghanistan passes through Islamabad and Delhi

Below is a piece I wrote for the Daily Post, an India-based paper. The gist of the article, simply put, is this: If India and Pakistan can work out their insecurities vis-a-vis Afghanistan, peace will have a realistic chance.

Here’s the full text:

An Afghan voter found himself one eye short after he cast his ballot in the 2009 presidential elections. The Taliban had gouged his eye because he had voted that morning despite warnings from the group prohibiting people from participating in the elections. The Taliban had done all they could to intimidate voters but had failed to deter this man and others like him around the country. There were other people – voters, candidates and their campaign workers – who had been threatened and even killed by the Taliban that August, but the elections went ahead. The number of candidates was the highest it had ever been, and turnout was comparable, if not higher, than the turnout in any U.S. midterm election since at least the 1960s.

Granted, several districts didn’t see polling due to insecurity, election results were tainted with allegations of widespread fraud, and the man who lost an eye saw the elected government turn down his request for compensation; but what remains clear, despite all of the setbacks, is that Afghans have a strong positive predisposition toward democracy. The current government suffers from a lack of credibility and, therefore, low popularity; but given the choice between the Taliban’s theocratic regime and an iteration of democracy, the choice for Afghans is clear.

But they want their democracy to be Afghan. That means what they consider unbridled personal freedom interfering with deeply entrenched societal mores and Islamic precepts is unacceptable. They don’t want a Taliban-style draconian government that stifles all personal freedoms; they want a democracy that respects and promotes the Afghan way of life.

The struggle against the Taliban, though, is hardly the biggest challenge of democracy in Afghanistan. We face an insurgency that cannot be quelled by 100,000 of the world’s best trained, best equipped troops. And with 70% illiteracy rate, we wouldn’t need an insurgency to drag us down. These, though, are still not Afghanistan’s biggest challenges to democracy. You see, left to their own devices, Afghans have been fairly successful in keeping their martial instincts in check.

The last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, reigned over 40 years of peace and quiet that are still considered to be 20th-century Afghanistan’s glory days. Zahir Shah successfully navigated the pressures of alignment stemming from World War II by declaring Afghanistan a neutral country. Prosperity, rights and development were relative unknowns, but people weren’t at each other’s throats like they would be later on.

The USSR’s involvement turned Afghanistan into a proxy battleground. The Soviets dragged with them to Afghanistan the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, each of which had their favorite proxy. That gave rise to the infamous three decades of war in Afghanistan that culminated in the rule of the last-standing militant group, the Taliban, which enjoyed Pakistan’s backing.

That same force – foreign influence – is still undermining our democratic development. Pakistan is looking for what they call strategic depth, a prospect that spooks India. And when India and Afghanistan sign a strategic agreement, Pakistan is scared witless. Afghanistan is once again becoming a playground for external rivals who want to see an outcome of their choice prevail in the country. India’s soft power approach – manifested through cultural outreach, development work, educational scholarships, etc – is better than Pakistan’s militant-proxy approach, but the net effect of India’s strategy hurts Afghanistan all the same because both rivals see Afghanistan as a zero-sum game.

Afghanistan cannot continue to be the battleground where India and Pakistan play out their insecurities. If Pakistan has a problem with the strategic realignments, it should solve it with India. The faltering negotiations between India and Pakistan, their history of wars, the mutual distrust and the rivalry are ultimately destabilizing Afghanistan. The road to a peaceful solution in Afghanistan passes through Islamabad, Delhi and Kashmir.

The sacrifices of the Afghan people will in the end be meaningless if external actors keep muddying the waters for us. Like the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan, that of India and Pakistan can trigger events that can undermine democracy and drag us further down into misery.  But miseries in a country like ours – at once connected to China, the Central Asian Republics, South Asia and, through Iran, the Middle East – will not remain confined to our borders alone.

India is a rising economic power and Pakistan is struggling to stay afloat. China is a global player and the Central Asian Republics are fast rising in geostrategic importance. Another three decades of war and instability in Afghanistan will undoubtedly have negative consequences for the region and the globe. As the world has seen in the past, what happens in Afghanistan reverberates in New York, London and Madrid. It’s high time Afghanistan’s neighbors, including India, helped it become stable and democratic by removing its biggest hurdle – the curse of instability coming from the outside.

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