Twenty-one years ago the US pushed the Russians out of Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan and Afghan militants. Russia lost 13,000 soldiers in nine years.
The US entered Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan in 2001. Interestingly, the US lost just 1,200 soldiers in Afghanistan during this period. Our troops are not fighting in that country but are engaged in a war inside Pakistani territory. But they have lost about 3,000 army and paramilitary troops, which is more than the US causalities.
The US administration is now encouraging Russia to come back and join hands with NATO forces in Afghanistan. No doubt the US and Russia have many common interests there. Containing and defeating terrorism in the region is the major common cause for both the US and Russia. Eradication of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is very important for Russia because it is one of the biggest victims of drugs produced in that country.
Unfortunately, Russian military officials have returned not as friends of Afghans but as allies of US troops. US and Russian troops launched their first-ever joint anti-drugs operation in Nangarhar on Oct 29. Four Russian military advisers were part of that operation.
Sadly, Afghan president Hamid Karzai condemned this joint US-Russian anti-drug operation in very clear terms and claimed that it was conducted without informing the local authorities in Nangarhar. In other words, the return of Russians to Afghanistan will now awaken the ghosts of the past and these ghosts will create new misunderstandings between Russians and Afghans.
There should be positive engagement between Russian and US-NATO forces in Afghanistan. But Russians must move forward very carefully. They should not lose their credibility in that country because that is very important for any future solution to the Afghan problem.
As a journalist who has travelled to all the troubled areas of Afghanistan from the east to the south, I can say that the common Afghans don't regard Americans and Russians as their friends. They even make allegations against Pakistan, Iran and other countries. The common Afghans think that most of their neighbours are interfering in and destabilising their country. Most of the Afghans say that their country is becoming a battlefield between the US and Iran, and India-Pakistan tension is very much visible in Afghanistan. It is not a secret that some forces are interfering in Pakistan by using Afghan territory. The province of Balochistan and the tribal areas were safe before 2002. These areas became trouble zones after the arrival of US troops in Afghanistan.
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have become more unsafe in the last nine years. Al-Qaeda is weak but it is still united with the Taliban. Early this year, Al-Qaeda finally had 16 of its members released from Iranian custody. Dangerous among them were Saad bin Ladin (son of Osama bin Ladin), Saiful Adil (a former Egyptian security official), Suleman al-Gaith from Kuwait (a former Al-Qaeda spokesman) and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani who was once number-three in Al-Qaeda. All these are back in Afghanistan, and some of them will try to move to the Middle East and Africa, or maybe to Pakistan. They may create more problems with the help of some sleeper cells working in different countries. We should not underestimate Al-Qaeda; they can do anything in any part of the world with the help of their local allies.
Our common enemies are united, but we, the so-called allies in the war against terror, suspect each other. We think that we are playing double games with each other. Some of us say that we need to start a dialogue with the Taliban; others among us reject this idea. We are divided. But the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are not divided. They don't want any dialogue with us. They know our weaknesses. They know we are not united.
What is the solution? First of all, the neighbours of Afghanistan, including Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and the Central Asian states, must make a special contact group with Turkey, India, US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This contact group must formulate a joint strategy for the stability of Afghanistan. If there is no common strategy, then no political or military strategy will work. No country in the region can bring peace to Afghanistan single-handedly.
This contact group should start a well coordinated effort to make Afghanistan a "neutral country." Afghanistan has the potential of becoming a Switzerland or a Sweden of South Asia. When all the countries like the US, Iran and Pakistan discourage "foreign interference" in Afghanistan with the help of Russia and China, I am sure we can make a breakthrough.
How can we stop foreign interference in Afghanistan? It's very simple. We must concentrate on that country's border security. The US and NATO have spent nine years in Afghanistan, but unfortunately the borders of Afghanistan are still not secure. This is the biggest failure of the international forces. If Afghan borders are secure, nobody will make allegations against Pakistan and Iran that they are interfering in the country. Nobody from Kabul will say that Pakistan is secretly sending militants to attack foreign troops in Afghanistan. When there will be fewer allegations, there will be more cooperation between the countries concerned. The US will have no reasons to carry out drone attacks inside Pakistan.
Fencing the Pak-Afghan border is difficult, but not impossible. If Pakistan and India can agree to fence the line of control between Azad Kashmir and Indian-occupied Kashmir, then why not fence the Pak-Afghan border? The LoC is disputed territory according to UN resolutions on Kashmir, but we fenced the LoC in the larger interest of peace. We must also do this on the Pak-Afghan border, otherwise there will be no peace in the region.
We need to improve our cooperation and understanding for finding a political solution in Afghanistan, but right now the situation is not suitable for such a solution because we are divided and we don't have a common strategy. Before we agree on a common political and military strategy, all the countries in the region must improve their relations.
Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan and all the Central Asian states must improve their banking relations. They should open branches of their famous banks in each other's country. Give a chance to genuine and legitimate businessmen to become ambassadors of peace. These improved banking relations will discourage trade in illegal arms, which is financed by money generated through drug smuggling.
Russia must play a role for uniting all the regional forces as a friend of Afghans and Pakistanis. If Russia will only play the role of a "US Ally," then all the ghosts of the past will haunt us again. Today many Russians say that Afghanistan was their Vietnam. We must learn lessons from their mistakes, if not, maybe tomorrow Afghanistan may become the Vietnam of the US. We must save Afghanistan because the security of Pakistan lies in the security of its neighbour. If one country destroys another, the other may not survive. Let us unite and deal with the problem through a common strategy.