‘Pakistan has only been important for US because of Afghanistan’

By Xari Jalil

LAHORE: In an absorbing session held by the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), Associated Press correspondent Kathy Gannon spoke to journalist Zahid Hussain about his newly published book, No-Win War: The Paradox of U.S.-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.

Hussain and Gannon are both well versed in the affairs of the region and the latter has been present in Afghanistan since the early days of the Taliban.

Hussain explained what took place in Afghanistan over the last 30 to 40 years, and also about Pak-US relations during that time.

“Pakistan had asked the US many times to include moderate Taliban in negotiations,” he said. “But the US and the Northern Alliance who had taken over Kabul (with CIA support) were not ready to accept any section of the Taliban, while the US thought that all Taliban were part of Al Qaeda, and should be annihilated,” explained Hussain. “Lakhdar Brahimi, Special UN Envoy for Afghanistan and Iraq, and the main architect of the Bonn agreement, later on said it was the ‘original sin’, because there were a lot of factions of Talban, and many of them were willing to accept the reality and would have liked to come into mainstream politics,” said Hussain.

Gannon asked Hussain how the Pak-US relationship was distorted, especially if Pakistan is only seen by the US through the prism of Afghanistan. “Pakistan is seen as an untrustworthy partner, the US has also been untrustworthy with Bush’s secret memo, and drone attacks on Pakistani soil,” she said.

Pakistan and the US have always been ‘frenemies’, said Hussain.

“After 9/11, Pakistan was critical for the US because of Al Qaeda and Taliban, but it was like a short marriage as there was no convergence of interests as in the 1980s,” he highlighted. “Pakistan had already been siding with the Taliban and the CIA had already established relations with the Northern Alliance who were against the Taliban. So Pakistan and the US were already standing against each other. There was especially little trust left because of what happened in 1990 after withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Pakistan was left all alone and it felt betrayed by the US. It was a period of the most estrangement — Pakistan was one of the most sanctioned countries and 9/11 changed everything. Suddenly there was a need for Pakistan.”

Hussain specified that Pakistan had also cooperated a lot. “Pakistan took action against Al Qaeda, and most highprofile leaders were captured, with ISI helping CIA. But when it came to Taliban there was a completely different situation,” he said. “Taliban leaders came to Pakistan after the Afghan invasion and while they organised themselves here, Pakistan pretended to look the other way — in fact even helped them.”

As for Pak-Afghan relations, because the Northern Alliance was set up by the CIA, and was anti-Taliban at all cost, and at the same time supported by India, this did not do well for Pakistan so there were tense relations.

Perhaps the biggest cause of concern for Pakistan has always been deep security concerns, but the US has never really given this a thought, and this is integral even now to Pak-US relations, said Hussain. “Another security concern was the Indian influence in Afghanistan causing a security problem for Pakistan and an old fear of being surrounded by eastern and western sides hounded us. And that’s one of the reasons why Pakistan kept supporting factions of Taliban.”

Zahid Hussain recounted the worst moments of the Pak-US relations in 2011, a turning point, after the Raymond Davis incident, the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and the most serious one was the Salala incident where 20 soldiers and officers were killed because of US bombing. After that the relationship had almost broken down, but there was absolutely no apology from the US for what it had done. However, things changed later and the relations became completely transactional.

“I think the US and Pakistan are still miles apart. It’s very ironic that while Afghanistan has always been the main cause of tension between the US and Pakistan over 20 years, it has also been a cause for them to stay together,” he said. “Sadly from the US, there is still no understanding what Pakistan’s real concerns are.”

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2021