It was a pleasant evening in winters of 2019 when I was sitting with a retired Pakistan general at an Oman beach resort. Across the table were Alice Wells, then US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, and Mullah Abdulsalam Zaeef, former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan who spent time in Guantanamo Bay after he was amply humiliated (by his own admission) and handed over to the Americans by Pakistan’s security officials.
The general — clad in dapper western evening wear — was holding single malt and fiddling with his expensive leather cigarette case with his well-manicured hands.
“Our Gwadar beach must not be very far from here; can you imagine us sitting peacefully like this there?,” I asked the general. “Not in our lifetimes,” he chuckled. Taken aback by his nonchalance, I asked him if it would be possible in our daughters’ lifetimes. “Not even in their daughters’ lifetimes,”he responded in his deep baritone voice. When I asked him if he was okay with that, his voice turned dry. “Of course not, but we have to live with the consequences of our choices,” he hit back.
Despite my repeated probing, he kept stern, not yielding even the slightest trace of compunction.
Two years before this exchange, I was sitting with four politicians from three major political parties, i.e. PTI, PMLN and PPP during a similar evening get-together in Lahore. One of them was a sitting member of the federal cabinet, while another one now holds an important ministry under the PTI government. I raised the issue of Pakistan’s well-documented, long-time support for the Taliban. The PTI leader was adamant that our part in the 1980s’ jihad was absolutely necessary because otherwise the Soviet Union would have occupied Pakistan.
None of them denied the Pakistan state’s support for the Taliban, but the PML-N and PPP leaders were clearly of the view that our backing of religious extremists in Afghanistan would not take Pakistan anywhere. When asked why they did not voice these concerns in the parliament or among the government (which was led by PMLN at that time), the answer was an emphatic “no party can afford to do it”.
But the PML-N did afford to express dissent over state policy on relations with India. Afghan policy, however, seems to have been long surrendered by political parties. It is as if Pakistan’s decision-making elite has already made peace with whatever abyss the country falls to, the ‘choices’ that ‘we’ have made are far more important to be prioritized over everything else.
Fast-forward to the events of last week: Taliban, the religious extremist militia, took over Afghanistan, the US fled from the scene and the Afghan president escaped the country without speaking to his people.
A general wave of rejoice swayed Pakistan left, right and center. Former military officials were the first ones to tweet in sheer rapture about the ‘victory of faith’ over the ‘imperialist west’. They were shortly joined by the sitting ministers and religious parties’ leaders who expressed their delight over the defeat of imperialist America and decimation of Indian ambition in Afghanistan. Even Prime Minister Imran Khan could not stay silent for long and finally exulted the Taliban for ‘breaking the shackles of slavery’.
Ever since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, scores of Pakistani journalists of compliant variety have been sent to Kabul, who are now reporting that there is peace and calm on the streets of Kabul and how delicious ice-cream flavors are available on roadside kiosks. When reminded of thousands of Afghans lining up at the airport to escape the country, or the revenge executions perpetrated by Taliban despite issuing general amnesty for the consumption of international media, some Pakistani journalists would tell you how the Afghans had been leaving their country in thousands even before the Taliban surge. So, it is all hale and hearty. No big deal at all, they tell us.
As much as this callousness and lack of empathy is sickening, it is but a natural consequence of decades of propaganda led on by our state machinery and obediently followed by a major section of media. Lest we forget, WikiLeaks made an important cable public in 2011 wherein a dispatch by US embassy in Islamabad detailed how a Pakistani media group was engaged in propaganda that ideologically supported Taliban and was fomenting anti-US sentiments using distorted, sometimes concocted reports. We have a Prime Minister who rhapsodized anti-west, anti-liberal, anti-feminist ideas for years alongside openly eulogising the ‘resistance’ to western imperialism waged by Taliban.
The myth was not created by Khan, it was just followed by him on the cue of his mentors in the establishment, like General Hameed Gul, Pakistan’s former spy chief commonly known as godfather of the Taliban. Endlessly repeated by talking heads on current affairs shows on TV, mainly retired military officials, the myth has seeped deep into Pakistan’s overall collective psyche.
The fact is that the Taliban did not fight Americans when they were deposed in 2001. There was rather a period of relative peace till 2004, when Taliban started attacking Afghan civilians and few of the military targets. It only happened after they were provided the support to re-group and train. Ever since then, and even way before the American invasion in the wake of 9/11, Taliban had been at war with Afghans. Their fight has been consistently against the republic of Afghanistan and every slightest symbol of modern statehood there.
Till as late as the Doha agreement and in the weeks preceding their ultimate occupation of Kabul this August, Taliban have carried out targeted killings of Afghan intellectuals, politicians, artists, leading women in journalism and other fields. In fact, Taliban’s actions made US and allies attack Afghanistan in the first place. It was the Taliban who invited all ilk of foreign terrorist outfits to Afghanistan and used them as foot soldiers in this bloody war against their own country.
Prime Minister Khan has overlooked these hard facts while cheering them for breaking the ‘shackles of slavery’, something they never even tried. In the name of his ‘anti-war’ politics, he and his supporters alongside the political and media proxies of the powerful security establishment, have created an environment where criticism of state policies, prevalent social injustice, and inequalities is rubbished as ‘treason’. Political dissent is labelled as ‘playing in the enemy’s hands’.
The resultant conservatism, extremist ideological leaning, and overt religiosity has put Pakistan’s religious, ethnic, and ideological minorities under perpetual threat. It has not only transformed our society into a barren wasteland of ideas where no creativity, no freethinking, no unorthodox discourse is possible anymore. Professedly an Islamic society, the milieu thus created treats women and other gender minorities as less than dirt, where they are assaulted, lynched, and humiliated as every day’s mundane routine. The tragedy is, the above-mentioned actions and consequences are not seen mutually linked by most Pakistanis – commoners, elites and thought leaders put together.
This will only intensify after Taliban’s orthodoxy in our neighbourhood. You cannot amass filth in your neighbourhood and expect it would not stink in your own backyard. This is hardly a victory Pakistan should rejoice. This is a savoury recipe for further disaster that we have so enthusiastically brought to our country. The bespoke suits clad elite needs to reflect with more maturity and far-sightedness rather than with this adolescent schadenfreude.