By Olivia Ward for The Toronto Star
As NATO forces prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, worries about the country falling back to Taliban control are paramount. But in neighbouring Pakistan, where suicide bombings and brazen attacks on security forces have become regular occurrences, the stakes are also high.
“What happens in Afghanistan affects us and vice-versa,” says Akbar Zeb, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Canada. “We have four million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan, and it’s in our interest to have a stable country where we can send them back. A Taliban takeover won’t be just detrimental to Afghanistan. It would harm Pakistan and the whole region.”
Zeb said that under the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari, relations have improved with Afghanistan, and contrary to reports of friction, there are “frequent contacts” between the two countries that would be helpful in creating stability.
But he added that Canada, and other Western countries, should not repeat the mistakes of the post-Soviet era, when the West lost interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan as soon as the Soviet troops withdrew.
During the rule of Pakistan’s military leader, President Pervez Musharraf, groups of Taliban-linked militants got a foothold in Pakistan, but were not seen as a danger to the country until internal attacks began to spread. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and suicide bombings took the lives of hundreds of civilians. Under pressure from the U.S., the Pakistani military began a massive campaign against the Taliban along the Afghan border.
“We have managed to clear a lot of areas from the Taliban,” said Zeb. “Military campaigns are the only language they understand. But they alone won’t help to win the war. We have border regions with a lot of poverty, and backward elements that have been ignored for a long time.”
Canada has announced support for road and rail projects linking Afghanistan and Pakistan to speed trade between the two countries.
“It’s a very good initiative, but scope is limited,” said Zeb.”We wish the projects were larger and not just (confined to) those that involve both Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Talks with Islamabad are also ongoing on the use of ports in Karachi for shipping out Canadian troops and military supplies from Afghanistan.
But as the war continues, Pakistan has also been urged to be tougher on the Taliban. In the past two years it has carried out attacks against the militants in its border regions with some success, while American-launched drone strikes have killed high-ranking Taliban. The catastrophic floods that wiped out some of the most important agricultural areas of Pakistan brought a temporary truce, but militant attacks have resumed since the waters receded.
Last week, talk of a peace deal between the notorious Taliban-linked Haqqani network, and an opposing tribe in the remote northwest raised fears that it could open the way for Taliban access to strategic border areas. But the U.S. has also urged a Pakistani offensive against the network in North Waziristan, a volatile region where 400,000 civilians are vulnerable to displacement.
According to Pakistani officials, the country has lost some 7,000 security forces in a decade of fighting the militants — more than three times the coalition deaths in Afghanistan. Meanwhile 30,000 Pakistani civilians have died. The border region, a tangle of mutually hostile tribes, remains a haven for militants.
“It’s a difficult balance for Pakistan,” said Zeb. “Foreign troops may leave, and for them Afghanistan is a distant land. We’re Afghanistan’s neighbours. We helped with the fighting in the decade-long war against the Soviets. And we have to live with the outcome of this war.”