I was giving a talk about the drug trade in Afghanistan based on my book Opium Nation with the Istanbul Book Club when Yamna, a member of the club and a graduate engineering student from Pakistan, burst into tears.
“I’m so sorry for what my country has done to Afghanistan,” she said, wiping her tears from under her glasses. “Now Pakistan’s suffering too. My best friend lost her brother in the Peshawar school attack. I went to high school there.”
The infamous 2014 attack on an Army school killed more than 140 people and signaled a wake-up call for Pakistanis to stand up to the Taliban.
I held Yamna’s hand and held back my own tears. This was a moment of validation. I would never blame Yamna or expect her to apologize for what the Pakistani government is doing to Afghanistan. But her recognition of the injustice and bloodshed immediately created a bond of understanding, one that I don’t feel on social media with Pakistanis.
My face-to-face interactions with Pakistanis in Pakistan and abroad can be summed up in one word: friendship. My interaction and opinion of the Pakistani government, especially their intelligence service the ISI, is more complicated. In 2001 while reporting for Agence France Presse as a rookie correspondent in Islamabad, my journalist visa was revoked and I was deported for reasons I do not know until today. I had lived in Islamabad for a year before the incident and shared few opinions about Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan. I simply wrote people’s stories.
But after a decade of covering Af-Pak issues, I began to give talks and write commentaries. I regularly criticize the ISI’s sponsorship of terrorism and extremism in my homeland and the blowback it has created inside Pakistan. Three million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, including most of the Taliban leaders who have been trained and armed to bomb Afghans. Many of these refugees would repatriate if security returned to Afghanistan, lifting the burden on Pakistan. But Pakistan’s military prioritizes regional power over internal progress.
On Afghanistan’s part, the century old debated Durand Line, the British imposed border between the two countries, should become official. Pakistan says recognition of the border stops threats of its Pashtun population teaming up with Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes to spark another separatist movement. It’s a moot point that most officials don’t even talk about but one that could appease Pakistan a little. Yet there’s not much else Afghanistan can do to stop Pakistan’s interference. Breaking ties with India isn’t an option.
Pakistan’s taking action against some of the extremists inside its own soil. The hanging of Islamist Mumtaz Qadri for killing the Punjab governor Salman Taseer Monday showed some resistance against the fanaticism the military allowed for decades. But assassinating extremists on one side of the border and exporting others will only result in more refugees and more hostility between our countries.
When I post a critique of Pakistan’s menacing role in Afghanistan, there’s a silence from most Pakistanis, especially Pakistani-Americans. Then again if I or someone else posts any critique of American screw-ups in Afghanistan, many of the same Pakistanis are quick to share the article, sympathize with Afghans and condemn the U.S. What bothers me is the denial of their own government’s consistent role in sponsoring terrorism inside Afghanistan. From training the Taliban to coordinating attacks against Indians in Afghanistan, there’s ample evidence to show Pakistan’s intelligence service is responsible for instigating the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
The silence in some cases is understandable. Journalists and academics in Pakistan risk death when they openly criticize the Pakistani intelligence or military.
In other cases, the silence comes from ignorance. I remember interviewing young women at Qaid-e Azam University in Islamabad shortly after September 11, 2001. When I asked them about the Taliban, one political science student said they were “simple minds just doing what they had to do to bring order.”
“What if they came to Islamabad, took you out of school and forced you to stay home because you’re a woman?” I asked.
“They don’t do that. That’s just Western propaganda,” the same woman said. When I explained that I had witnessed their banishment of women from society, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Maybe Afghans want that.”
That was nearly 15 years ago and Pakistanis now should know better. However, there’s still either a denial or deflection to blame the West for all of Af-Pak’s problems. Historically, Afghanistan has been a pawn of geopolitics in the region due to foreign meddling and internal corruption, meddling not only from the West and the former Soviet Union but from its neighbors Pakistan and Iran.
The largest population of Afghans in the U.S. live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many have lost friends and family in Taliban initiated suicide attacks in their home country. A group of these diaspora Afghans held a protest against the Pakistani government’s actions in Hayward, California several months ago. Pakistani-Americans should’ve stood with the Afghans but instead, there was a loud chorus of objections on social media.
“Brothers, why are you doing this? We should stand against the drone attacks and bombings of the U.S. together. Why are you dividing up Muslims?” one Pakistani-American wrote on Facebook.
Perhaps because it’s Muslims in power killing Muslims with little power and the sooner we acknowledge that, the faster we can fight it together.
My now friend Yamna is not the only one who apologizes and recognizes Pakistan’s role. This month on twitter, Afghan-British activist Peymana Assad who often makes the same critiques I do about Pakistan, received this tweet and made a new Pakistani friend:
— Peymana Assad (@Peymasad) February 11, 2016