The story of Afghanistan resembles a Greek tragedy, says Riaz Mohammad Khan. There is "no dearth of good intentions," but "overall a history of failures." For decades, the country has been beset by violent conflict, much of it driven by foreign interventions, internecine fighting, and religious militancy. This strife has had a major impact in neighboring Pakistan, a troubled state in its own right.

Khan, the Woodrow Wilson Center's current Pakistan Scholar, is writing a book that chronicles the effects of the Afghan conflict on Pakistan, with particular emphasis on the toll it has taken on societal development and progress. He addressed this topic at a July 23 presentation organized by the Asia Program and co-sponsored by the Middle East Program.

Khan first identified several missed opportunities in Afghanistan. For example, the world donor community "abandoned" Afghanistan for much of the 1990s; more international interest and funding "could have made a difference." Between 1992 and 1997, the country netted little global aid, while Russia received $50 billion from the international community. Additionally, Khan argued, the "diversion" of U.S. attention from Afghanistan to Iraq soon after the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan "contributed to the continuation" of the Afghan conflict.

How has Afghanistan's turmoil affected Pakistan? Khan spoke about the militancy and insurgency in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan, and the "intellectual crisis"—the "confusion in public discourse"—that pervades Pakistani society today. He described this crisis as a constricting influence on Pakistan's progress and modernization, and traced it to three factors:

  1. tensions between religious orthodoxy and reformist forces;
  2. the "security orientation" of the Pakistani state, fuelled by the perceived "historic injustice" over Kashmir that has taken on a religious dimension; and
  3. the growth of a religious culture that has weakened vocational education and culture in Pakistan. Khan declared that the lack of a sound national educational system represents a government failure, and averred that this poor focus on education illustrates another crisis—one of governance. Pakistan, he said, is rife with leadership and institutional failure.

Stabilization Through "Coercive Presence"

Khan addressed prospects for stabilization and reconciliation in Afghanistan. He argued that attaining the former will require the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to maintain a "coercive presence," to be used for selective military action. The United States has the "lead role" in Afghanistan's stabilization, and must coordinate its military strategy with Pakistan—particularly those aspects having an impact on Pakistan's border region. Khan acknowledged that Washington and Islamabad have "different tactical approaches" vis-à-vis Pakistan's tribal areas near Afghanistan, though he contended that "close consultations" among top Pakistani and American officials can "keep misgivings at a minimum."

As for reconciliation, he opined that next month's national elections in Afghanistan will be a crucial factor. Additionally, Khan noted that both the 2006 Afghanistan Compact (a political agreement between Afghanistan's government and the international community) and President Obama's new "Af-Pak" policy envision the "co-opting" of moderate Taliban members as a component of the reconciliation process. Reconciliation efforts will be helped by according more attention to the revival of the economy, agriculture, employment, infrastructure, and education in Afghanistan. Khan concluded that reconciliation and economic development are important features of a "comprehensive approach" to ending conflict in Afghanistan.

According to Khan, the reconciliation process has not yet successfully addressed what lies "at the heart" of the prolonged Afghan conflict: the breakdown of the "erstwhile" Afghan national consensus. This collapse, he explained, was triggered by the 1978 Saur Revolution, when Afghan communists seized power and set the stage for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Reconciliation efforts, he asserted, have yet to restore this earlier consensus.

How do Afghanistan and Pakistan ultimately move forward? Khan noted that there is no "quick fix," and that the challenges faced by both nations are rooted in complexities that stretch back 30 years. He stressed the importance of the economy and social development (particularly education), which can help turn young people away from violence. Above all, however, these countries—whose fates have often been influenced by external actors and events—must resolve their challenges themselves.

Pakistan's much-needed focus on education "will have to come from within Pakistan." While Khan conceded that Afghans have long exploited outside powers' interests "for their own individual and parochial interests," reconciliation is a strictly domestic matter. It "cannot happen from outside," and must involve local groups, such as the tribal assemblies known as jirgas. Additionally, if the winner of the upcoming presidential election is seen to have been sponsored by outsiders, then he or she will not be credible, and efforts toward reconciliation will be undermined.

By Michael Kugelman
Edited by Robert M. Hathaway

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