For most Afghans Sharbat Gula symbolises the sufferings and hardships that this nation has gone through ever since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The CIA-ISI-led insurgency then made global headlines then, with the Afghan mujahideen happily rubbing shoulders with the American-Pakistani trainers and mentors. They even went as far as the White House. But that is history. Now, both the Afghans and the Pakistanis are dealing with the consequences of that insurgency – commonly known as jihad.
The popular narrative on Sharbat Gula is premised on victimhood and innocence. The common Afghan looks at this issue through the moral prism. All they know is that the lady was deported from Pakistan disgracefully to the disregard for her over three decades of residence there. Also, the commoners don’t know that Pakistan’s provincial and central governments did offer to prevent Gula’s deportation through an appeal to the court. They are also unaware that Gula had herself first challenged her deportation orders and withdrawn her petition as Pakistani authorities offered to help her stay on.
Also, most Afghans appear to be in a state of denial over internal and domestic political motivations behind the high-profile treatment of cases such as that of Sharbat Gula. The dominant majority of Afghans possess Pakistani IDs, why are they not being arrested and deported, they ask? Smelling rat so to say.
This particular case consumed quite a bit of time during a Track 11 Beyond Boundaries at Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan. When parliamentarians, journalists and foreign policy /security experts from both Pakistan and Afghanistan went into a huddle to discuss common challenges, Sharba Gula’s case topped the initial proceedings with regard to the treatment she got — 15 day detention for possession of a fake ID Card and the harassment of Afghans in Pakistan at the hands of the police and intelligence officials. Afghan delegates looked at the issue more from an emotional and humanitarian dimension, either intentionally or inadvertently overlooking how easily political motives can trump humanitarian considerations.
The extent of suspicion and the propensity to construe everything as motivated is evident from the case of Inzamamul Haq; he was coaching the Afghan national team when offered the chief selector’s job by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). In an unusual rush, Inzamam abandoned the job in Kabul to assume the new one in Pakistan. This gave birth to lots of speculation in Afghanistan.
“Why wasn’t he offered the job before and why only when he had started coaching our team?” asked a skeptical Afghan delegate, underlining the deeply entrenched mistrust of Pakistan, totally oblivious to the fact that the PCB acts independent of the government and had been looking for a chief selector after the sacking of Waqar Younus.
Many people like Ms Elay Ershad, a very lively member of the parliament and a vocal women’s rights activist, say both Pakistanis and Afghans need to dispassionately ponder why most of those who grew up or were born in Pakistan have also turned their guns against Pakistan.
Ms Ershad recalls how young Afghans had access to excellent education in Pakistan, unlike Iran where they had a limited space. Our boys didn’t get in Iran the kind of education they got in Pakistan, she said. Another delegate said many of Afghan girls in Iran took up professions that we all look down upon. But in Pakistan, they had the opportunities to excel as professional, IT experts, educationists and entrepreneurs. “Imagine how someone born in Pakistan would feel if forced to leave? It hurts”, said Ms Ershad.
They also ask as to why wouldn’t Pakistan bid farewell to the Afghans in a way that wouldn’t entail bitterness. Sharbat Gula’s case offers Pakistan a chance to look at thousands of similar cases to avoid further embarrassment and prevent further damage to the bilateral relations. Most Afghans you come across radiate warmth and a sense of indebtedness for the hospitality Pakistan had offered all these years. But they wonder why is it squandering all the goodwill through policies that are damaging in impact. Unfortunately, the past baggage, the quest for upping India in Afghanistan and short-sighted, tactical approaches have created more acrimony than winning hearts and minds. Why couldn’t Pakistan seek mechanisms to deal with the refugees issues or all those Afghans born or settled in Pakistan through marriages, businesses? The only explanation one can offer is that Pakistan’s ruling elites are preoccupied with priorities other than long-term policies that can help improve its image.