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The people living in eastern Afghanistan have a peculiar sort of love-hate relationship with their neighbor Pakistan. The other country is right there on their doorstep. In Khost Province, there are areas where you can stand where, if you look north, south or east, you’re looking at mountains in Pakistan. Anyone from this area who spent time as a refugee from Afghanistan in the past 30 years probably was living in Pakistan. Millions still do. On both sides of the border, people share the same Pashtun ethnicity and language (ish). In fact, there are more Pashtuns living in Pakistan than Afghanistan, though because of country size, they make up only 15% of Pakistan’s population and around 40% of Afghanistan’s.

And according to the Afghans who live near the border, Pakistan is the root of all of Afghanistan’s problems.

In Paktika Province, high on the plateaus in the district of Khayr Kot, I was asking some villagers about their opinion on reconciliation and reintegration of Taliban fighters. One grumpy old spingeri (“whitebeard”) said, “If the government wants to stop the fighting, they have to close the borders with Pakistan. There are no Afghan Taliban fighters, they’re all foreigners…all Pakistani, working for their government, here to destabilize our country.”

I asked a similar question of villagers in mountainous Wazi Zadran district in Paktiya Province. One man, probably in his early 30s, replied, “There are no Taliban around here. The only bad people we have are foreigners, government-sponsored Pakistani fighters who move through the mountains at night. Pakistan wants Afghanistan to fail.”

Then in the fertile valleys of Mandozai district in Khost Province, I asked some villagers…

Well, you get the idea.

I finally wised up and changed my tactics. You see, in Afghan culture, especially Pashtun culture, lying is generally frowned upon, but using clever word play to lead people astray is an art form. Calling someone out using indirect and subtle language can earn respect and laughter.

So one day, I responded to one of these “blame the Pakistanis!” comments with, “Wait, wait, wait. There are a lot of Afghans who live in Pakistan now [including much of the Afghan Taliban, though I didn’t say that directly because it’s cleverer to be subtle and imply it]. Some who are in their 20s now were even born there. So when you say, ‘Pakistanis,’ do you mean real Pakistanis or Afghans who are just living in Pakistan?”

The crowd around the speaker burst into laughter, while he looked chagrined.  He mumbled in admission, “Well, they come out of Pakistan, anyway.” Point for me! “But,” he went on, “they’re all funded by the ISI, because Pakistan wants our country to be weak and unstable.” ISI. Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s formidable intelligence agency. That, I have to admit, was harder to argue with, as many western commentators say much the same thing. Me? I don’t know. I’ve never seen definitive proof one way or the other, though the ISI did support the Taliban back when they were in charge and they supported lots of mujahaddin groups against the Soviets (ahem).

Pakistan and the ISI. Every Afghan I met would assure me how evil they were and how they were intentionally and actively responsible for Afghanistan being a mess.

At the same time, there are some serious dependency issues going on here. The official currency in Afghanistan is called the afghani. (An Afghan is a person, afghani is the money.) But in many eastern parts of the country, the primary currency is actually the Pakistani rupee. Seriously, you go to the bazaars and people look at you funny if you try to pay with afghani. Part of this is because Afghanistan is an import economy. They do very little manufacturing of their own, or food processing, so just about everything people need to survive comes with a little metaphorical tag that says “Made in Pakistan.” Locals figure it’s easier to just do all business in rupees since everything comes from there anyway. (Well, except maybe this guy’s wallpaper, but then again, with outsourcing, who knows where Chips Ahoy wrappers are made:)

And down in places like Spera district that are right along the border, people sometimes consider themselves to be Pakistani (the borders aren’t exactly well marked). Even the ones who don’t might as well. I was asking a man who lived in a village near the border where his kids went to school, in an effort to see how well the Afghan government provides services in remote areas.

“Oh, they go to a government school in Pakistan.” I must have looked stunned, because he laughed and continued, “That’s where we go to the doctor too. And to go shopping for food and clothes and everything. It’s closer and easier to get to than anything here and no one there seems to mind.”

So Pakistan may be a big, evil, conniving bad guy, but, er, it turns out that for some Afghans, the Pakistani government takes better care of them than their own. (It’s a good thing no one really pays taxes in Afghanistan, or they might be mad about that.) And yet, Pakistan is bad. But Afghans economically rely on them. But…

Love-hate. Co-dependent. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not a particularly healthy relationship and should be…fun…in the years to come. Does NATO do relationship counseling?