Pakistan not to blame for ‘unwinnable’ Afghanistan war, says PM Imran Khan

Prime Minister Imran Khan Monday penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post in which he criticised the Afghan and Western governments for making Pakistan “a convenient scapegoat” for the outcome of the war in Afghanistan.

The premier started his opinion piece by saying that he was shocked to see a recent US congressional hearing that instead of recognising Pakistan’s sacrifices in the War on Terror, blamed it for “America’s loss”.

‘Afghan war was unwinnable’

“Let me put it plainly. Since 2001, I have repeatedly warned that the Afghan war was unwinnable. Given their history, Afghans would never accept a protracted foreign military presence, and no outsider, including Pakistan, could change this reality,” he wrote.

PM Imran Khan lashed out at successive Pakistani governments, saying that they had sought to please the US instead of pointing out the flaws of a military-driven approach in Afghanistan.

“Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf agreed to every American demand for military support after 9/11. This cost Pakistan, and the United States, dearly,” he stressed.

He cited the US support for the Afghan Taliban back in the ’80s, noting how then-president Ronald Reagan entertained them at the White House during the days when the CIA and the ISI trained them to fight against the Soviets.

“Once the Soviets were defeated, the United States abandoned Afghanistan and sanctioned my country, leaving behind over 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and a bloody civil war in Afghanistan. From this security vacuum emerged the Taliban, many born and educated in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan,” he wrote.

“Fast forward to 9/11, when the United States needed us again — but this time against the very actors we had jointly supported to fight foreign occupation,” said PM Imran Khan.

PM Imran Khan lamented how General (retd) Musharraf, who was then ruling over Pakistan, had turned a blind eye to US drone attacks and had given the CIA a footprint in Pakistan.

He regretted how Pakistan Army troops had been sent into the  semiautonomous tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, “which had earlier been used as the staging ground for the anti-Soviet jihad. The fiercely independent Pashtun tribes in these areas had deep ethnic ties with the Taliban,” he wrote.

The prime minister spoke about how, between 2005 and 2016, 16,000 terrorist attacks were conducted against Pakistan by over 50 militant groups, who saw the US and Pakistan as collaborators.

“We suffered more than 80,000 casualties and lost over $150 billion in the economy. The conflict drove 3.5 million of our citizens from their homes. The militants escaping from Pakistani counterterrorism efforts entered Afghanistan and were then supported and financed by Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies, launching even more attacks against us,” he said.

‘Corrupt and inept Afghan government’

The premier lashed out at former president Asif Ali Zardari, referring to him as “undoubtedly the most corrupt man to have led my country”, accusing him of not worrying about the collateral damage caused by US drone strikes. He said former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was no different.

He then shed light on why the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite it improving in Pakistan after the army’s onslaught against militants in 2016.

“In Afghanistan, the lack of legitimacy for an outsider’s protracted war was compounded by a corrupt and inept Afghan government, seen as a puppet regime without credibility, especially by rural Afghans,” he wrote.

“Tragically, instead of facing this reality, the Afghan and Western governments created a convenient scapegoat by blaming Pakistan, wrongly accusing us of providing safe havens to the Taliban and allowing its free movement across our border. If it had been so, would the United States not have used some of the 450-plus drone strikes to target these supposed sanctuaries?”

The premier highlighted Pakistan’s steps to satisfy Kabul, adding that Islamabad offered Kabul a joint border visibility mechanism, suggested biometric border controls, advocated fencing the border and other measures. Each idea was rejected.

“Instead, the Afghan government intensified the ‘blame Pakistan’ narrative, aided by Indian-run fake news networks operating hundreds of propaganda outlets in multiple countries,” he said.

He said a more realistic approach should have been negotiations with the Afghan government much earlier so that the embarrassing collapse of the Afghan army and the Ashraf Ghani government could have been avoided.

“Surely Pakistan is not to blame for the fact that 300,000-plus well-trained and well-equipped Afghan security forces saw no reason to fight the lightly armed Taliban. The underlying problem was an Afghan government structure lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the average Afghan,” he added.

‘Engage with the new Afghan govt’

The prime minister said the “right thing” right now for the world to do would be to engage with the new Afghanistan government, adding that if assured of constant humanitarian aid, the Taliban will have greater incentive to honour the global community’s demands.

“Providing such incentives will also give the outside world additional leverage to continue persuading the Taliban to honor its commitments,” he wrote.

“If we do this right, we could achieve what the Doha peace process aimed at all along: an Afghanistan that is no longer a threat to the world, where Afghans can finally dream of peace after four decades of conflict. The alternative — abandoning Afghanistan — has been tried before,” warned the prime minister.

As in the 1990s, it will inevitably lead to a meltdown. Chaos, mass migration and a revived threat of international terror will be natural corollaries. Avoiding this must surely be our global imperative.”