AS the fighting season in Afghanistan opened, the hopes generated during the early months of the Ashraf Ghani-led unity government have visibly dissipated. The Afghan Taliban have launched a series of attacks across Afghanistan and in Kabul, inflicting heavy casualties on ill-prepared Afghan security forces. The (remaining) US-Nato forces have had to resume a combat role.
The security reversals have widened the internal political fissures within Afghanistan and the unity government. Central command and control over segments of the Afghan security forces has been disjointed. The role of ‘independent militias and warlords has revived.
US President Obama’s agreement to an extension of the rump US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016 may improve the prospects of the Ghani government’s survival against insurgency; but it will impede agreement with the Taliban.
Despite the disappointments, peace can be realised in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s fragile rapprochement with Pakistan is under threat. The critics of President Ghani’s reliance on Pakistan to contain the Afghan Taliban and deliver them to the negotiating table have become more vocal as the security environment has deteriorated. Ghani’s recent visit to India was designed to signal his alternate options. The ambitious Pakistan-Afghan schemes for transit trade, gas pipelines and electricity grids remain on the drawing board.
It is uncertain if the recent visit by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Kabul and his strong and unprecedented denunciation of the Taliban while there have helped to reassure his hosts about Pakistan’s sincerity. This denunciation was, however, an open admission from Islamabad that it does not exercise the decisive influence it was widely presumed to have over the Afghan Taliban.
In fact, it is questionable if Pakistan ever exercised such decisive influence. Despite Pakistan’s entreaties, Mullah Omar refused to surrender or expel Osama bin Laden, pre and post 9/11. Today, his own control over his commanders is uncertain. It is therefore unclear why Islamabad allowed the impression to be created that it could curb the Afghan Taliban insurgency and convince them to enter into talks with Kabul.
The assurances given to Ghani by Pakistani leaders may have been sincere and well-intentioned; but they may have inadvertently served to support the thesis that Pakistan has had a role in the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Its inability now to deliver on its good intentions is likely to be projected by Pakistan’s adversaries as evidence of its ‘continuing duplicity’.
On the other hand, some of President Ghani’s promises — for instance, to neutralise the Pakistani Taliban and the Baloch dissidents present in Afghanistan — have proved difficult to fulfil. The Pakistan Army’s recent open accusation of Indian interference in Balochistan provides an illustration of Pakistan’s disappointment and an explanation for Ghani’s inability to ‘deliver’.
Yet, despite the disappointments, peace can be realised in Afghanistan (and Pakistan’s frontier regions) because of the positive alignment of the ‘co-relation of forces’ (in Soviet parlance). These include: Pakistan’s declared support for stability in Afghanistan, even at the cost of an open break with the Afghan Taliban; the reopening of talks in Doha, however conditional, between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban; China’s active interest in ending the Taliban insurgency and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement’s involvement in this; the continuing US support for the unity government and for talks with the Afghan Taliban.
But these positive strands need to be brought together in a well-considered and comprehensive approach grounded in realism. The following actions appear essential:
One, Mullah Omar’s authority over the Afghan Taliban needs to be restored. Only then can the talks in Doha or elsewhere become meaningful. Mullah Omar cannot assert effective control while there is a price on his head. The US and other major powers should reverse the decisions of the Security Council and acknowledge Omar and his movement as a legitimate negotiating partner.
Two, President Ghani and the unity government have to get their act together. The dissonant voices — from Karzai’s circle and some of the Afghan warlords — need to be restrained. Also, Kabul should outline, at least confidentially, its concept of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘power-sharing’ to the Taliban so that focused negotiations can commence.
Three, Pakistan must use all possible levers to persuade the Afghan Taliban to engage in the peace process, including direct action against dissident commanders.
Four, Kabul, Islamabad and Washington should engage the Afghan Taliban informally to work out the terms for an initial cessation of hostilities as the negotiating process gets under way.
Five, the US can do several things to help the peace process: exert pressure on the dissonant warlords and factions in Afghanistan opposing reconciliation; intensify military action against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in Afghanistan to reassure Pakistan and prevent the TTP from disrupting the peace process; outline possible economic incentives for various Afghan parties, including ‘cooperating’ Taliban. The US should also convey a commitment to full military withdrawal from Afghanistan at an agreed stage in the peace process.
Six, China can simultaneously support the peace process by offering economic incentives to all Afghan parties and regional states positively engaged in the process or in supporting it.
Seven, the Afghan government, with active support from Pakistan and the US, should engage in separate dialogues with Iran and Saudi Arabia to ensure their support for the peace process and the cooperation of Afghan parties ‘affiliated’ with them.
Eight, a group bringing together states directly involved in the peace process should be established to forge a consensus on the structure of sustained peace and stability in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.
Despite the positive alignment of ‘forces’, the odds of success for the Afghan peace process remain challenging. But failure is not an option. The alternatives are dire: a continuation of the never-ending conflict in Afghanistan and on Pakistan’s frontier and the danger of the region becoming embroiled in the vicious sectarian wars being waged in Iraq and the Levant.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2015