Afghanistan & Pakistan: Going beyond victim narratives

He said, he said

There’s a reason they say that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Eventually, someone throws a few rocks your way. And you suddenly find yourself surrounded by shards of broken glass, wondering what hit you. The question then becomes whether you have it in you to pick up the pieces.

This metaphorical ramble was inspired by my recent participation in a seminar on South Asian security challenges. The 10-day course brought together a group of Pakistanis, Indians and Afghans to debate the multiple conflicts and sources of tension across the region. Though the topics — wars, water, weapons and all manner of “strategic assets” — under discussion were charged and contentious, participants maintained a cordial and professional demeanour, occasionally lacing their comments with caveats and polite dissent.

However, a distinct theme emerged in the comments of my Afghan colleagues: whatever our problems, Pakistan is behind them. And whatever are the solutions to those problems will have to start with Pakistan. The nuclear arms race in the region, the failure of US military strategy in Afghanistan, the curse of regional terrorism, problems in Afghan governance, obstacles to regional cooperation on trade and development, the stumbling, slow exploration of Afghanistan’s energy and mineral resources — you name it, and it was Pakistan’s fault.

Admittedly, the Afghan participants were speaking in a very particular setting: they were abroad, simultaneously addressing a regional and American audience. As representatives of their country, they — like the rest of us — were juggling official, popular and personal opinions; the group was not necessarily representative of the Afghan population as a whole. And the security-focused nature of the seminar certainly influenced the parameters of the discussion, leaving less room to discuss regional geopolitics in a holistic manner.

More interesting than the rights and wrongs of my colleagues’ viewpoints was the fact that the Afghan narrative about Pakistan was uncannily similar to the Pakistani account of US foreign policy. Much in the same way that Afghans see a Pakistan hand in all their problems, Pakistanis have wholeheartedly subscribed to a fraught fantasy of American omnipresence and omnipotence.

Like the Afghans, the Pakistanis too have legitimate grievances against the United States. The litany of complaints can at this point be recited by rote: Washington empowered militants in the 1980s, the US has cultivated Pakistan as a client state, American aid has long exacerbated the civil-military imbalance, and US interference has further corrupted local politics, etc.

Of course, just as Pakistan has its own side of the story to counter the Afghan narrative, as well as its own set of complaints against Afghanistan, the United States has its gripes with Pakistan’s transgressions.

The point is not to reiterate the complicated dynamics of Pakistan-Afghanistan and Pakistan-US bilateral ties; it is to show that both Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to have subscribed to narratives of victimhood. When faced with their country’s myriad, growing security, political and economic challenges, they simply place the blame elsewhere. This was not a problem of our own making, the logic seems to imply, and therefore we can’t possibly be asked to fix it.

Such narratives of victimhood are dangerous for a variety of reasons. They allow governments to defer responsibility for contemporary problems, and dwell in the past, rather than plan for the future. And they are devastating when it comes to strategic planning: for a nation to define strategic, social, economic and political goals, it must articulate a vision of the future and single-handedly pursue it. However, if the nation is suffering from a victim complex, its strategic planning becomes reactive rather than active. Instead of setting targets for achievement, it dithers about, waiting for the professed villain (whether Islamabad or Washington) to make a move. Only then does it respond, and that too in a defensive manner.

We can see the pitfalls of the victimhood crisis in both Pakistan and Afghanistan playing out in the effort to negotiate an endgame in Afghanistan. Rather than vitalise the High Peace Council, created to hold talks with the Taliban, and articulate workable frameworks for an Afghan-led political reconciliation process, Kabul is waiting to see what the United States and Pakistan broker as acceptable parameters for negotiation. Meanwhile, rather than craft an articulate and comprehensive policy for engagement with Afghanistan in the realms of security, politics and trade, Islamabad (and the general headquarters of the Pakistan Army) is waiting for cues from Washington.

It is high time that both Pakistan and Afghanistan took ownership of their problems and articulated proactive national visions. Empowerment can come from within, and it starts by addressing the issues that are under your own control. Until they rewrite the victimhood narrative, Islamabad and Kabul cannot pick up the broken pieces around them.

Huma Yusuf is a Pakistani journalist currently doing research as the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. This article originally appeared in the Pakistani daily Dawn.


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