Sharbat Gull, the Afghan woman who made it to the cover of the National Geographic as a young Afghan refugee in Pakistan, was kept in jail for more than fifteen days. She was not only accused of illegally living in the country but also of forging documents. The hue and cry raised internationally finally led to the reversal of the decision. But the period of incarceration in a jail while she suffered from hepatitis-C with no one to really look after her as her husband and daughter died suffering the same disease will surely wipe away any good memory of her years of stay in Pakistan. I might not even have noticed the Sharbat Gull story had I not visited Afghanistan and seen the shine in the eyes of many Afghans when you speak to them about Pakistan. At Kabul airport the young man at the scanning machine got terribly excited at the site of my passport and told me about the good fifteen years he spent there and how nicely he was treated by the people. Indeed, there are many in Kabul who will tell you about the difference between Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. The refugees from latter are better educated and trained than those returning from former. Didn’t we open our homes and hearts for the Afghan refugees during the 1980s and let them travel throughout the country and settle anywhere they wanted because it served our interests then? It was precisely this policy due to which we were threatened by the former Soviet Union and there were incursions of our air space. Of course, the comment by the Afghans makes one smirk as such policy of openness during the 1980s had put the life of an average Pakistani at risk. Nevertheless, the new replacement policy is not to smile and be happy about either as it is likely to wipe out any goodwill we generated in all these years. The shine in the eyes of the security guard at the airport and many like him will soon disappear as more and more Afghan refugees return from Pakistan with stories of how they were harassed at the border or at places they lived. Even Pakistanis and not just Afghans speak about how the head of Afghan families are randomly picked up and kept hostage as guarantee that they leave Pakistan. Sharbat Gull again seems to be one such case. Moreover, there were complaints of border forces extracting bribes from poor Afghan people for allowing them to cross the border with their animals. What we are looking at in the form of mass Afghan repatriation is a human tragedy in the making that Pakistan could argue is not its problem. But the manner in which Islamabad plays its hand will have a long-term impact on how ordinary Afghans will perceive their neighbour. Afghanistan is a country searching for itself, a time when it needs consideration by regional and international actors. This is at least whatI could fathom during a brief visit to the country. It is a repository of an ancient history that connects Central Asia and South Asia. This is certainly what one felt after a visit to Emperor Zaheeruddin Babur’s grave in Bagh-e Babur, Kabul. Yet, its polity is in the process of defining itself by grappling with friction amongst various internal power centers, and amongst international players that lay claims on determining its future. Despite the atmosphere of an ‘unforgettable lightness of being’ that one encounters in the country, the grave security threat to people’s lives , especially to foreigners working or visiting the country cannot be understated. It is not just the Taliban but warlords spread around that engage in kidnapping for ransom. It was just a few months ago that a female employee of the Aga Khan Foundation was kidnapped. Thus, the AKF that is engaged in numerous commendable activities in Afghanistan and Central Asia in general were forced to do what other organizations in Afghanistan do all the time – beef up security and invest in bullet and bombproof white Land Cruisers that are in abundance in the country. The Serena hotel in particular, which is one of the two relatively secure and five star hotels* in Kabul is practically like a fortress. Outside the urban areas there is a constant conflict between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban. According to a VoA journalist I met there, a road going out of Kabul will be safe to travel during certain times when it is controlled by the Afghan security forces. But that control is not permanent as the Taliban could sporadically challenge the military’s authority and set their own check post. But then a few hours later the military would reclaim it. The constant hide and seek continues to make the security environment precarious. But this in itself cannot be seen as a sign of the return of Taliban to control the entire territory. Although not excessively efficient, Kabul and its international partners have struggled with creating an indigenous security infrastructure that some in Pakistan find problematic. Many of the retired military officers that form part of the track-II dialogues between the two countries have often advised Kabul to reduce the number of its security forces if not scrapping the structure entirely. It is reasonable to expect that Kabul will try to develop a semblance of autonomy as far as its security is concerned. The ruling elite and the middle class in Afghanistan seems invested in the evolving security infrastructure. In fact, the military is gradually becoming an emerging local patron which the young urban Afghans look up to for protection. They are proud of their armed forces and police that is not very different from the norm in the larger South Asian neighbourhood where people are expected to render unflinching support to the security establishment to a point that challenging myths created by it would tantamount to being unpatriotic. The Afghans, however, have not reached the point where the military is considered synonymous to the state. Hence, the environment of discussion and debate remains vibrant and, in fact, you can find more open criticism of the government and state functionaries than you would in the rest of South Asia. The young and urban Afghanistan is thoughtful about the challenges it encounters. It was almost ticklish to see the former Afghan ambassador Mullah Zaeef share the panel at the security dialogue with this new generation of women who were ready to stand on their own. This goes hand in hand with the realization that Taliban would have to be talked to. It was interesting to listen to musings of women in senior positions in the government ponder over the decision not to engage with the Taliban after 2001. One could also overhear skepticism regarding Zalmay Khalilzad’s role and his capacity to make policies especially when he was personally affected by conditions in the country. The view was that someone a bit more detached might have had a different level of rationality. However, an underlying thought pertained to the discomfort with Pakistan’s attitude in not allowing a certain level of autonomy to the Afghan ruling elite. This frustration becomes visible at times such as when the entire hall at the conference clapped on the suggestion that Pakistan had continued to support militants inside Afghanistan and so ought to be punished for its behaviour. Notwithstanding that similar suspicions are raised when Afghans visit Pakistan. * Many claims suggest that the current ruling elite, which Rawalpindi’s hawks describe as ‘regime’, are influenced by India. Indeed, Delhi has worked efficiently to enhance its influence in Afghanistan and fight the battle for wining hearts and minds in the country through setting up initiatives visible to the common man. The numerous paediatric centres or educational and cultural initiatives have worked wonders for Delhi. Pakistan, on the other hand, does not seem to have a new policy towards Afghanistan that would help capitalize on its inherent advantages. For example, one of the things I learnt during a 2014 study on Pakistan-Afghanistan trade was that Islamabad had a natural advantage versus Iran. Although Tehran offered greater advantages, the ordinary Afghan trader was more comfortable dealing with Pakistan due to, besides other facts, ethnic and sectarian affinity. There are those that continue to crib about India’s bureaucratic red tape and find it less expensive trading through Pakistan. Looking at factors that favour Pakistan the reason for not being able to capture the relationship initiative is not just a matter of Indian conspiracy but perhaps our own against ourselves. While India would play for its gains, the question that ought to be asked is that what side is Pakistan batting for especially when senior military officials get incensed by the growing Delhi-Kabul linkage and formulate a policy of putting pressure on ordinary Afghans? How fair would it be to subscribe everything on Delhi’s machinations when Pakistan’s diplomatic missions are not known for reaching out to people and making new friends and links? How does it help creating bureaucratic hurdles and ensuring that Afghans divert from Peshawar to Delhi for medical tourism? Although Islamabad has committed over $600 million for development in Afghanistan, it seems too little too late to begin something that should have happened long ago. It certainly required a vision to establish universities and schools in Afghanistan with help of the private sector to develop existing links with the Afghan society. Instead of taking responsibility of their lack of initiative, Islamabad has resorted to the easy way of looking at Afghanistan purely from India’s lens. Consequently, there is a tendency not to search for partners beyond the Taliban.Despite that,Islamabadconstantly claims that it has no influence over the Afghan warriors. But then how would an alternative appear when Islamabad seems to force its own preference over Afghanistan and its new political players that emerged after 9/11? There was a constant reference to Pakistan appreciating Afghanistan’s sovereignty and respecting the government in Kabul instead of imposing its own choice. The tirade from part of the Pakistani delegation, however, was asking Afghans to rid their territory off American troops that could only be understood as Rawalpindi wanting to impose its own choice over the future of its northern neighbour. Not that Afghanistan was ever Pakistan’s territory, but the visit to the country and being able to observe the dialogue between the two states through its power elite reminded me so much of policy flaws demonstrated by treatment of the Eastern wing by policymakers in Pakistan’s western wing during the 1960s and 1970s. Just like crowded Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) rallies in East Pakistan were interpreted as indicator of their possible victory in 1970 elections, my fear is that the goodwill amongst ordinary Afghans is looked upon as support for choices that Pakistan’s establishment is hell-bent on making for Afghanistan. The tactfulness in handling Kabul is where India may have an edge over Islamabad. The lack of flexibility and use of force then had contributed tremendously to the damage done by the proverbial final nail in the coffin in the form of war by India. I wonder where is the policy to plug the holes in our Afghan policy so that it does not turn into yet another disaster. That the Americans may not leave; the Taliban may not be able to take over the entire territory again, and Afghanistan may become moderately violent in the future thus sapping Pakistan’s energy, are some of the possibilities that must inform our reactions and policies in the future. Published in Daily Times, August 23rd 2017.