In Pakistan we cultivated the Taliban, then turned on them. Now we can only hope they forgive us

Pakistani protesters in Karachi, September 2001 Photograph: STR/Pakistan/Reuters
Pakistani protesters in Karachi, September 2001 Photograph: STR/Pakistan/Reuters

Not too long ago, Pakistan and Afghanistan were called Af-Pak: two countries joined at the hip, doomed to live and die together. You didn’t get to choose your neighbours, we were told. Geography, we were taught, was our destiny.

There was a lot of talk about geostrategic significance – which was the Pakistan military’s way of saying there were great advantages to be derived from our unfortunate neighbours.

More than four decades ago, our leaders insisted we had to help the Afghan mujahideen fight the Soviets because that would help us ward off communism in our own country. Having lived most of my life in Pakistan, I have probably come across half a dozen communists – and even they never agreed with each other.

That first jihad made generations of Afghans homeless but it also made some people in Pakistan very rich. The Soviet-Afghan war also sustained our brutal military dictatorship, brought us abundant supplies of cheap and high-quality heroin, and introduced something called “Kalashnikov culture”, which made it easier to settle political and personal disputes by killing each other.

Pakistan won that war. Our generals and seasoned defence experts still can’t stop boasting that not only did we defeat the Soviet Union but we also brought about the end of communism. The United States and the rest of the free world surely owed us. But they upped and left. This was when we learned what the rest of the world already knew: America had no shame.

But when the victorious mujahideen finally took power in Kabul, a few years after the Soviets left, they turned out to be the wrong sort for Pakistan. After all the years we spent training and hosting them, they still didn’t really like us much. So another war had to be started to get rid of our mujahideen.

Taliban fighters, taught in our madrasas and sometimes armed by us, marched to Kabul and took care of those bad mujahideen. Finally there was peace. We envied the Taliban’s rustic justice and yearned for our own caliphate. But after a few years, we realised once again that they didn’t really like us and our way of life, even though we were one of the only three countries in the world to recognise their Islamic Emirate. When a Pakistani football team went to play a match in Afghanistan – wearing what footballers wear, shorts and shirts – the Taliban shaved their heads and sent them back.

We were still wondering what to do with these tricky Taliban when the World Trade Center fell – and the world let us know that we had accidentally got into bed with the bad guys. Apparently our Taliban were harbouring world-class terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Are you with us or with them, we were asked: choose wisely or you’ll be bombed back to the stone age. And who knows, if you side with us, you might get some money.

Don’t get us wrong, we still loved the Taliban – and we believed in our hearts that they were better Muslims than us. But we loved our country more, and our new military dictatorship had some cashflow issues. We turned on the Taliban. We pretended that we were only being responsible members of the world community by doing so. We hoped the Taliban would understand. We handed over the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan to the US; we gave the Americans our airbases to bomb the Taliban, who we then packed off to Guantánamo Bay.

We collected the bounty money but we also tried to shield some of the Taliban. We nourished them with one hand and stabbed them with the other. And while doing all this, we kept whispering in their ear that it was all for their own good. It was a clever strategy, we were told by our strategists.

Consider the story of Mullah Baradar, one of the founders and leaders of the Taliban. We supported him when he was part of the Taliban government, and then we left him alone for a bit while he and some of his Taliban friends lived for a while in Quetta, just on our side of the border. Unfortunately, in 2010 we had to arrest him again. But then we released him eight years later. Now it turns out he’s the new king – or perhaps just the kingmaker – in Kabul. But we live in hope that he’ll remember our hospitality.

Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency and one of the many self-appointed ideologues of Afghan jihad, once said that we defeated the Soviet Union with the help of America, and one day the world will say that we defeated America with the help of America.

Now many Pakistanis are gloating, while others are warning about the future. We are doing a victory dance, but there is dread in our hearts. We do talk about stuff like women and children and free media and the international consensus, but we are hoping that the Taliban will remember the good times we had together. We hope they will not remember their suffering too much.

We hope they’ll remember our suffering too. Last time we betrayed the Taliban, their Pakistani cousins brought the Taliban-style fight to our streets, mosques and schools. For many years, we told ourselves that there were good Taliban (mainly in Afghanistan) and bad Taliban (mainly in Pakistan). While trying to uphold that distinction, more than 70,000 Pakistanis were killed – including 132 in an army-run school, murdered in a few hours. The American military lost more than 2,300 lives in 20 years.

We already have a third generation of Afghans growing up in refugee camps, and now a new generation of Taliban taking over Kabul. We have always hoped that the Afghan Taliban will somehow rein in the Pakistani Taliban and turn them into civil society workers. For now, they have set them free from Afghan jails.

We were told not to celebrate the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. But some of us couldn’t help ourselves. Our prime minister, Imran Khan, who gets on very well with many of our old friends, took a moment during an announcement about a new educational curriculum to declare that Afghans had finally broken the shackles of mental slavery. Images of American military dogs being bundled into aeroplanes as Afghans cling to taxiing US aircraft prove again what most of us learned three decades ago: that America has no shame.

Yet although we have won in Afghanistan, many of us fear that a new, even more deadly war might be starting any time now.

Mohammed Hanif is a Karachi-based author. His latest novel is Red Birds.

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