The Islamabad-Kabul PIA flight on the morning of Friday, July 2, 2021 was carrying only a couple of Afghan nationals; all the other passengers were Pakistanis travelling to the capital of Afghanistan. Since Saudi Arabia stopped flights for Pakistan, Pakistani nationals working in the Kingdom spend 15 days in Kabul before taking off for Saudi Arabia.
After the almost 45-minute flight, I was at the Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport. The first thing I noticed was the surprisingly large number of planes parked there. The process of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is at its peak, and the country is rapidly falling into chaos – but the arrival of people here from across the world has not stopped. This volume of air traffic, though, will go on decreasing till the September deadline of the US-Taliban agreement. And there may well be a time when no plane of any airline other than Afghanistan’s own will be landing here.
On my last visit to Kabul – 17 years ago – every building in the city bore marks of bullets and carried the scars of destruction. But today I see modern buildings near the airport. The city also has put in place exceptional security measures.
Afghanistan has been the battleground of the world powers since 1979. They say Afghanistan goes to the hand that hoists its flag in Kabul. When the former Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, the US with the help of Pakistan and the Mujahideen defeated it. American interest in Afghanistan vanished when the Soviet Union was reduced to Russia; after that it was neighbouring countries that remained at war in Afghanistan – over conflicts between these countries. When the Taliban took power in Kabul and made harsh laws and rules in the name of religion, general educated Afghans turned against the Taliban regime. While the Taliban banned poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, what they cultivated instead was a kind of extremism and violence that spread not only in Afghanistan, but also to Pakistan and other countries.
The US turned its attention once again towards Afghanistan right after 9/11, for its own interests. So, American forces landed in Kabul and the US installed a new Afghan government with Hamid Karzai as its head. The US spent almost 20 years here waging the ‘war on terror’. Despite all-out efforts, the Afghan government could not establish its writ anywhere other than Kabul and in a few other areas – on account of the Taliban starting to slowly regain power from 2004 onwards.
Though it is not yet a widely-known factor, but I believe China is one of the major reasons of American failure in Afghanistan. China has done discreetly what America did against Russia (the Soviet Union) some time back. The Taliban cultivated good relations with China, took Iran on their side and got support of their old friends in Pakistan – thus inflicting damaging wounds on American and Nato forces. Eventually, the US agreed to pull out.
On the other side, the Afghan government – stained with corruption allegations and governance failures – could do nothing for the common Afghans. Now the Taliban are advancing towards Kabul while the world powers have started leaving Afghanistan. It also seems the US wants to secure the Taliban’s services against China after the US-Taliban reconciliation deal. There is nothing new for the ordinary citizens of Afghanistan, merely old wine in a new bottle – war, violence and an uncertain future.
We in Pakistan have over the years been idealising the Taliban, especially the Afghan Taliban. Religious groups have been presenting the Taliban government as a role model; and this perception has continued. We could not understand that the Taliban are to Afghanistan what the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan are to us. Perhaps we failed to understand this as a state and also could not make our people realize this – possibly because we too fully used the opportunity to make dollars.
The National Security Committee of parliament was told in its meeting on July 1 that ‘Pakistan is not supporting the Taliban because they and the banned TTP are collaborating’. I was happy to see that perhaps we have now realized some realities. But when I see Afghans looking at us inquisitively in the streets of Kabul, I realise that whether we are or not, a common Afghan is sure that Pakistan is backing the Taliban.
In the streets of Kabul, Afghan people stare at us Pakistanis, some even passing bitter remarks. As someone who has also visited India, I feel that Kabul is more stifling for Pakistanis than Delhi, with intelligence folks also surveilling and pestering Pakistanis who stay here in cheap hotels before departing for Saudi Arabia. However, despite all the negative, a big group present here likes Pakistan – and remembers that it was Pakistan that gave them shelter and love. They have an attachment with Pakistan and Pakistanis. But, as they say, one bad apple spoils the barrel.
At the moment, Kabul is in the grip of fear. And why not? The Taliban now occupy 117 out of 372 districts of Afghanistan, not including Kabul and 34 provincial capitals. Some areas of the Baghlan province, which is four to five hours from Kabul, have also fallen to the Taliban. People in Kabul are upset, afraid that the Taliban will reach here in the next few months. The fear of death kills more than death itself. And it is fear that reigns in Kabul today.
The writer is an investigative journalist at The News and Geo TV. He is the author of ‘The Secrets of Pakistan’s War on Al-Qaeda’.