Destination unknown

February 25, 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THERE is considerable excitement in Pakistan, especially in ‘official quarters’ over the Afghan peace deal. From taking (some) credit for the impending deal to the vindication of Islamabad’s stand, there has been considerable celebration that is bound to grow louder with time.

However, at the same time there is a quieter wave of concern over the uncertainty that faces Afghanistan and what it will mean for Pakistan. This is less obvious at the state level — a government trying hard to gain international approval is not going to point out the slips between the deal and peace — where the mood is one of celebration. But the lack of official acknowledgment does not mean that the less savoury aspects should be ignored altogether.

Earlier, this disquiet about the future was about the ability of the Afghan Taliban and Kabul to reach a deal; now it is about whether and how this phase will begin. For the dispute over the presidential election in Afghanistan is heating up; the election commission may have declared Ashraf Ghani the president but his main contender Abdullah Abdullah has refused to accept this result.

For the moment, it seems as if there is going to be no ‘peaceful’ transfer of power — and this will have lasting implications for the peace talks and not just for the existing political dispensation that was put in place post the invasion of Afghanistan, as the deal with the US is to be followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue..

The first is of considerable importance, for the power elite that was and had invested in the post-Taliban setup now stands divided, with the non-Pakhtun leaders backing Abdullah Abdullah. For example, Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, has backed Abdullah Abdullah, as has the Hazara-dominated party. A similar situation had emerged after the previous election but then the US had brokered a deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

There is a quiet wave of concern over the uncertainty that faces Afghanistan.

This time around, no one is sure if Washington will play such a role, which is why already there are some naysayers who are conjuring up scenarios similar to the 1990s — violence, bloodshed, infighting and a central government reduced to Kabul. Worse still, the 1990s brought infighting within the Afghan elites to a point where the warring factions destroyed the capital city as they fought each other.

But perhaps such a scenario may not be as certain and as close as some fear. Hard as it is to predict the White House under Trump, it would still be in its interest to make efforts to broker a post-election government in Kabul.

For one, so far the US seems committed to an intra-Afghan dialogue and this will only be possible if there is a government in Kabul for the Taliban to have a dialogue with. In a rapidly changing scenario, it has been reported that the Ghani government will announce a negotiating team to talk to the Taliban. But there are no indications how the opposing side will welcome the move, while the Afghan Taliban have already said that they will not accept a team which is not inclusive.

This is reason enough for Washington to push the contenders in Kabul to come to an agreement. Indeed, the US is the only power which has the clout to do so.

Second, for the moment, the US is also not contemplating a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan ala the Soviet Union. It has been reported repeatedly that the deal with the Afghan Taliban has included American control of bases where troops, or operatives, will continue to be based although their exact role in the country remains unclear.

The continued US presence means continued support/facilitation for a peace process, which again means outside pressure for a government in Kabul recognised by all those who stood against the Taliban post 9/11.

But it is not just Kabul which can be influenced by Washington. The behaviour of the Afghan Taliban will also be dependent to some extent on the US. The latter too, will be interested in pursuing a dialogue and keeping the violence within acceptable limits (if one can be crass enough to assume there is a level of violence that is acceptable) because it would be keen to ensure the American forces present are under no pressure or compulsion to step outside the bases in Afghanistan.

More than that, it has taken the Afghan Taliban nearly two decades to get the international legitimacy they craved by having the US engage directly with them. Earlier, Washington always pushed for them to talk to Kabul first which led to little or no progress in the peace talks.

The carrot of the continuous engagement with the US will provide the only check perhaps on the Afghan Taliban not only in terms of violence but also their stand on human rights issues, especially their treatment of women.

In other words, peace, or its complete breakdown, in Afghanistan is heavily dependent on America’s continued engagement and presence in the country.

And this will not just be limited to the military presence; the money provided by the US will play an important role too. Indeed, the chaos and collapse everyone keeps expecting and predicting in Afghanistan may not emerge till Washington’s withdrawal militarily and financially. And at the moment, there is little indication that either is going to happen very soon.

In other words, while there is great uncertainty about what the coming days will hold, Afghanistan’s spiralling into violence may not be as immediate as some are assuming. Indeed, it would do the doomsday soothsayers well to remember that there are many variables in the situation in Afghanistan and it’s hard to account for each one of them while predicting what will happen in the coming days. The past can and always does provide some hints as to what the future may hold but it rarely ever repeats itself in its entirety. We would do well to remember that.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2020