Afghan reconciliation process

January 25, 2020

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The writer is a former foreign secretary. He is currently head of the IoBM’s Global and Regional Studies Centre.
The writer is a former foreign secretary. He is currently head of the IoBM’s Global and Regional Studies Centre.

IT was not entirely surprising that even while President Donald Trump spoke about Kashmir in his opening remarks, Prime Minister Imran Khan used the opportunity of meeting with President Trump to state that he attached top priority to Afghanistan and to assert that this was a common interest. The prime minister knew full well that even while Trump talked of watching Kashmir “very very closely”, his State and Defence Departments would tell him that any US action would be possible only if India agreed and that the US-India ‘strategic alliance’ was too important to allow the US to bring pressure to bear on an unwilling Narendra Modi.

Earlier, our foreign minister addressing a think tank in Washington sought to spell out his understanding of the degree to which Afghanistan had changed since 9/11 and how this meant that the Taliban would have to participate as a political party as it sought power in the country. But what is the situation on the ground and, equally importantly, what have the Zalmay Khalilzad and Afghan Taliban talks in Doha yielded so far?

President Ashraf Ghani has effectively won the Afghanistan election, having secured slightly over 50 per cent of the vote, a majority that avoided the need for a run-off election. His rival, Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah, has contested this, and said that until the official election results are finally declared the National Unity Government and Council of Ministers that he heads will continue to function. He has also called for ensuring participation in any negotiations of a broad-based group from the Afghan side, and not being limited to one ministry or the High Peace Council. One can assume, however, that if there is a ceasefire, which is being called for by most Afghan leaders, President Ghani will assemble a broad-based team involving most sections of Afghan political and social leaderships. Without a ceasefire or something akin to it, the Afghan government will have difficulty endorsing a US-Taliban agreement.

What is the situation on the ground, and what have the Doha talks yielded so far?

The Taliban’s spokesman in Doha, speaking to Arab News on Jan 21, said, “There had been no discussion on ceasefire since the beginning, but the US proposed reduction in violence and our stance is to provide a safe atmosphere during the days of the agreement.” Whether one should credit this, or the report by the AP’s Kathy Gannon a few days earlier that the Taliban team had proposed a seven- to 10-day ceasefire to Khalilzad and her claim that earlier in December the Taliban leadership in Pakistan had proposed a ceasefire, is not clear or is perhaps an indication that different Taliban negotiators are saying different things. In other words, if there are divisions within the Afghan ranks in Kabul so too are there differences in the Taliban team in Doha.

What is Afghanistan’s economic situation? Today, if my figures are correct, the US pays $4.9 billion (reduced somewhat recently) to support the 320,000 Afghan National Defence Security Forces and the US and other donors provide about 53pc of Afghanistan’s annual budget, even though President Ghani’s reforms have improved the country’s tax revenues and there has been an encouraging increase in its exports now amounting to more than $1bn a year. If this assistance were to cease, there would be no pay for the armed forces and many of the schools and hospitals would have to close. If the US maintains a presence — perhaps focusing on counterterrorism given the footprint that the militant Islamic State group has established in Afghanistan — Trump may be convinced that such assistance is worthwhile.

For us, IS in Afghanistan is largely the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, and Uzbek and Uighur dissidents who have nowhere to go and who would want chaos in Afghanistan to continue. Their presence in an unstable Afghanistan poses a significant danger to us. We know that, absent reconciliation or even reconciliation without substantial continued foreign assistance, Afghanistan’s internal situation will be dire and the flow of Afghans through Torkham and Chaman — currently about 40,000 daily — will increase manifold.

We have made substantial progress in fencing our border with Afghanistan and have moved towards establishing the sort of relationship with it that any two neighbouring countries have elsewhere in the world. But as the recent wheat shortage scandal underlines, much illicit traffic continues to flow. The cultivation of poppy, its conversion into heroin and its trafficking provides a substantial part of rural Afghanistan’s income. But it has created addicts in Pakistan, one of the principal trafficking conduits, and one cannot question the estimate that Pakistan may now have some eight million addicts, and many smugglers who operate by bribing officials and local influentials, thus undermining efforts to improve governance.

One last point; our people worry that India’s influence in Afghanistan garnered by both the soft power of Bollywood, etc and the $2bn spent on projects in Afghanistan is a danger to us. My own contention is that India’s ability to do us harm is much greater from across the land border they share with us and our highly permeable coastline (rightly called a smuggler’s paradise), and that its influence in Afghanistan adds only peripherally to its capacity to do us harm.

There has been no contradiction from any quarter that the Taliban team from Doha came to Pakistan to seek instructions from the Taliban leadership in Pakistan. Whether we like it or not, the charge will be laid that even while we talk of having limited influence on the Taliban, the very fact that the leadership is here places a heavy onus on us. What the world expects from us — and this means not just the USA and its Western allies but China and Russia too — is to persuade the recalcitrant Taliban to adopt a stance that can bring peace without jeopardising the continuance of financial and other assistance to Afghanistan.

What our policy should be in the light of the foregoing will be the subject of my next article.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. He is currently head of the IoBM’s Global and Regional Studies Centre.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2020