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In too deep: Afghanistan, Pakistan & the region

My piece for Himal published in March 2014..

Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan is caught in the muddled terrain of domestic political machinations and regional ambitions

flickr / smlp.co.uk

 

Afghanistan’s history is a turbulent one filled with civil wars, invading armies, foreign political meddling, and disputed successions. Sitting on trade routes between the Mediterranean and China, the Silk Road, and the entrance to India, it has been seen as a prize for many conquering empires. Sadly, Afghans have paid a heavy price for this curse of geography. The British Empire in the 19th century could not subjugate the territories, nor could the Soviets in the 20th. Now the US-led coalition forces, after a disastrous occupation of 12 years, plan to leave the country later this year. 2014 is not just significant for Afghanistan: it will result in regional shifts of power and a new security paradigm, with serious implications for Pakistan.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 unleashed a period of intense conflict as the US and the West responded by mobilising unprecedented resources and funnelling support to mujahideen fighters through regional proxies, most notably Pakistan. Driven by its regional ambitions and perennial fear of India, Pakistan entered the game and for a decade supported the development and oversight of a jihad industry that played on Islamist passions against the ‘infidel’ Soviets. Thus, a stream of jihadists crossed the Durand Line and found many allies to further the rise of Deobandi Islam on both sides of the border. This was a defining moment when jihad acquired a legitimacy of its own and engulfed not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan. […]

Poetic resistance to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s murder

As a young student I obtained a tattered copy of ‘Khushboo ki Shahadat’ from an old bookstall in Lahore’s Urdu bazaar. This was the mock glasnost era of General Zia-ul-Haq when he had allowed a handpicked legislature to function under his authoritarian control as Chief of Army Staff. In those days we grew up with polarized notions such as democracy cannot function in Pakistan and thus dictatorships were essential; or that Bhutto was the greatest leader Pakistan had but he asked for his death at the hands of a tainted judiciary. Thus Bhutto was a mythical figure hated by Zia’s cronies, of which there was no shortage in that era, and loved by his “ignorant, treasonous, and misled supporters”.

So you can imagine that picking up a collection of poems regarding the death and martyrdom of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not an easy feat for a confused middle class teenager. As I brought the book home and started to read the poems, my first impression was that of the deep commitment and bond the poets were sharing with their readers for a fallen hero who was not even accorded a decent burial in his village somewhere in the Sindh province. Of course this was also the province that resisted Zia valiantly and bitterly and continues to challenge his hypernationalism, which ironically was popularized by Mr Bhutto during his turbulent career. […]