Afghanistan: is hope real?

29 Mar 2015


The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

AS evident during the recent visit of President Ghani to the US, accompanied by Chief Executive Abdullah, the dominant sentiment that surrounds Afghanistan today is hope. Hope that, after four decades of war and suffering, peace can be restored and development promoted in the country.

Against all odds, the Afghans have achieved a peaceful, if not entirely democratic, political transition and agreed on a unity government that has brought together the country’s major political and ethnic factions and groups. Despite internal tensions, the power sharing arrangement has survived so far.

The Afghan leaders — Ghani and Abdullah — though personally ‘sensitive’, are both intelligent and educated men and seem to understand the realities and requirements of Afghanistan at the present juncture. Their programme for internal governance reform and economic development is clear and its implementation — while challenging — is being pursued diligently.

Recent positive developments do not mean the Great Game involving Afghanistan is over.

Internally, ending corruption and crime and promoting administrative and judicial reform, as well as national reconciliation, have been declared as priority goals. Even if appointments to ministerial and governorate positions have not been completed, the authority of the presidency is being exercised decisively to introduce the planned changes and policies.

Externally, the policy shifts are even more dramatic. Most important among these is the changed posture towards Pakistan and the United States.

President Ghani’s September visit to Islamabad convinced Pakistan’s security ‘establishment’ to change its strategic approach to Afghanistan. Far from a regime entrenched in hostility and resentment towards Pakistan, Islamabad found a leader who acknowledged the vital and symbiotic nature of Pakistan-Afghan relations and understood Pakistan’s concerns regarding India’s role in Afghanistan. All the doors of economic and security cooperation between the two countries have been opened. Most significantly, Kabul has extended active cooperation to combat the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Islamabad has committed to preventing cross-border attacks against Afghanistan and promoting reconciliation with the Taliban.

Kabul’s posture towards the US is also visibly different. During his recent US visit, Ghani was effusive in his gratitude for America’s military support and sacrifices and insistent in requesting its continued security and economic support. The US has consequently agreed to keep just under 10,000 troops and two military bases in Afghanistan in place for the present and continue its financial support to Kabul.

Ghani has also been adroit in seeking the intercession of Saudi Arabia and China to promote reconciliation with Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. China, in part to defeat the Uighur separatists, has adopted an active role in advancing both these objectives. The shift in Pakistan’s position and the recent contacts between Kabul and the Taliban are due in no small measure to Beijing’s diplomacy. There is even hope that Iran, as it moves towards a nuclear agreement with the major powers, will support Kabul’s endeavour to promote stability and peace in Afghanistan.

But, hope for Afghanistan remains clouded by fear and misgiving. There are several things that could go wrong.

First, the economy is in decline, as the artificial injection of money from the huge foreign presence and aid is withdrawn. In the best of circumstances, the unity government’s ambitious plans for natural resource exploitation and infrastructure development will yield growth and jobs after several years. Popular discontent could come sooner. The reduced external aid may not be sufficient to meet essential needs and expectations of Afghanistan’s population.

Second, the governance challenges are formidable. Corruption has become endemic. The administrative and judicial systems are broken. Drugs are the biggest contributor to the Afghan economy. Eradicating them will be both difficult and unpopular. Local warlords continue to wield enormous power through personal and tribal militias. Some who were empowered to combat the Taliban now pose a security threat themselves. And, the disunity of the unity government is frequently on full display and could collapse under economic, political or military stress.

Most importantly, there is as yet no clear path to peace.

The Taliban will test the mettle of the Afghan National Army this summer. If it collapses, like the Iraqi Army, chaos would return to Afghanistan.

Everyone has subscribed to the concept of reconciliation. But it is unclear what this will imply in practice. Will the Taliban be offered ministerial posts or control over areas under their influence (mainly in southern and eastern Afghanistan)? What will be the process of negotiations? So far sporadic contacts have been made in disparate locations and through diverse modalities. There is as yet no agreed format, venue or agenda for talks.

There are vested interests, in Kabul, Washington and elsewhere, which remain opposed to power sharing with the Taliban. The Taliban themselves appear divided. The political leadership seems to favour accommodation, while field commanders want to fight on.

The complete withdrawal of foreign forces has been a consistent Taliban precondition for talks. Ghani’s recent request, and US agreement, for the continued presence of American-NATO troops — designed to prevent a Taliban victory — could serve as a justification for the Taliban to refuse engagement with Kabul.

A failure to bring the Taliban to the table could be blamed on Pakistan by its already vocal detractors in Kabul, Washington and New Delhi. The tensions of the recent past could be revived. Civil war could return to Afghanistan and terrorism could continue to blight Pakistan.

Recent positive developments do not mean the Great Game involving Afghanistan is over. Some of the players may have changed but the contest for influence over this strategically located country goes on. Durable peace in and around Afghanistan will require a strategic consensus between the factions within Afghanistan, its immediate neighbours — Pakistan, Iran, China, Central Asia and Russia — as well as the US and its allies. So far, no endeavour has been made by any of the principal players to evolve such a broad consensus.

If hope is to triumph over fear, a clear and agreed vision for Afghanistan’s political future needs to be articulated by its leaders and constituencies, and endorsed and supported by the new players in the Great Game.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2015

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