Kabul in a fix

Published June 8, 2017

STUMPED by a grim security environment in Kabul and widening cracks within the fragile ruling coalition, President Ashraf Ghani has once again excoriated Pakistan — his favourite punching bag — for waging an undeclared war against Afghanistan.

At an international peace conference in the capital on Tuesday, he hectored Pakistan on the multiple benefits it could reap from lasting stability in his country, where 3,000 people were reportedly killed and wounded in a wave of devastating attacks in May alone.

The anguished cry from Ghani comes as Afghanistan remains literally under siege from the Afghan Taliban and the militant Islamic State group. Amid an ongoing storm of protest over the recent trail of murder and mayhem, his call for an end to “state-sponsored terrorism” is understandable.

Outraged by last week’s massive truck bombing that killed more than 150 people near the Green Zone, hundreds of residents have erected protest camps in the capital. Nearly a dozen demonstrators have since been killed by security forces and several civilians in blasts at the funeral of one of the victims.

More boots on the ground will set back progress.

The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that some members of the government and parliamentarians have also joined the demonstrators in demanding the immediate removal of the security bosses for their failure to arrest the current wave of terrorism in Kabul.

Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani of the Jamiat-i-Islami Afghanistan is clearly at odds with the Ghani administration on how to secure a bitterly divided country. He wants the security chiefs to be shown the door, while protest organisers insist on the entire government standing down.

As the president spoke to the conference participants, one rocket landed with a thud near his office and another struck the residence of the Indian ambassador in the diplomatic district. Meanwhile, a suicide attack killed seven people outside the blue-domed Great Mosque in Herat city.

Obviously paranoid, Ghani reiterated his offer of peace negotiations with the Taliban. In the same breath, he warned that the olive branch would not be offered indefinitely. “If the Taliban want to join talks, the government will allow them to open an office in Kabul, but this is their last chance.”

His airy-fairy proposition instantly drew an eerily familiar response from the insurgent movement: direct dialogue with the government was possible only after foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan — a condition unlikely to be met by a government struggling for survival.

The president knows that previous rounds of talks faltered largely because of mistrust. Right now, a fresh initiative seems to be a pipe dream, as Kabul continues to look for scapegoats to conceal its own failure on the security, political and economic fronts.

Like Pakistan, Russia and Iran have also been accused of aiding the Taliban, trying to ignite a new Great Game and derailing the progress made since 2001. Again like Islamabad, Moscow and Tehran claim they’re trying to secure the region and deny being a malign influence.

No doubt, the US can play an instrumental role in creating the right conditions for reconciliation. But, unfortunately, President Donald Trump is weighing the deployment of more troops to Afghanistan, which urgently needs to wriggle out of a conflict that has morphed into a fratricidal war.

With Kabul on the edge in the wake of the recent assaults, America’s flip-flop will only contribute to fuelling insecurity in and fragmentation of the international consensus on Afghanistan. False narratives about the effectiveness of troop surges are not going to help end the slaughter of innocent people.

Incessantly touted as a viable option by the Obama administration to vanquish the Taliban insurgency, the previous surges had triggered a string of deadly green-on-blue attacks. The insider assaults sowed the seeds of suspicion between Nato, and Afghan forces on the one hand and emboldened militants on the other.

A similar strategy, employing aggressive counterinsurgency tactics but ignoring Afghanistan’s economic revival, will not produce the desired outcome. Instead, it will translate into more fatalities among US service members besides making the war costlier and deadlier.

The incumbent US president, who has been harping on his America First policy, would do well to analyse what his predecessor actually accomplished by sending 30,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan. The unpalatable reality is that having more boots on the ground will set back, instead of promote, the peace process.

Despite losing hundreds of billions in treasure and more than 2,500 lives to the ill-fated conflict, the US is unlikely to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. Trump should have a shot at rallying Nato around a game-changing strategy to end the war and convince Ghani to adopt a coherent peace plan and eschew alienating Afghanistan’s neighbours.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2017

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