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Regional security

March 27, 2012

MEETING his Iranian, Afghan and Tajik counterparts in Dushanbe President Zardari made all the right noises.

A stable Afghanistan was in Pakistan’s interest; the nexus between militancy and drug trafficking needed to be curbed; non-state actors wanted to destabilise Afghanistan and, implicitly, they should not be allowed to do so; cooperation in all spheres among the four countries would assume added significance after the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014; etc.

Separately, all four leaders agreed that terrorism and militancy needed to be tackled jointly. This clichéd repetition of public stances adopted earlier should not be the only thing to emerge from the quadrilateral summit. They must have discussed the implications of the following developments and raised the following questions:

One development has been the increase in ‘green on blue’ incidents, the latest example being the killing of two British soldiers by an Afghan at a military base in Helmand and the confirmation that the man was from the Afghan army. Separately, an Afghan policeman shot an American soldier. These brought the number of such incidents in 2012 to 10.

The US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Allen, has conceded that these incidents have led to an erosion of trust between allied and Afghan forces, though earlier he had suggested “we should expect that this will occur in counter-insurgency operations”. Yesterday 16 people were arrested from the Afghan Ministry of Defence, at least some of them Afghan soldiers intending to use suicide jackets stored in the ministry itself to blow up buses bringing workers. Where then will trust come from?

In a New York Times poll conducted before the latest incidents, more than two-thirds of those surveyed think that the US should not be at war in Afghanistan when four months ago only 53 per cent felt that way. As regards the state of the war, 68 per cent thought the fighting was going “somewhat badly” or “very badly”, compared with 42 per cent who had those impressions in November 2011. Will there be any support, in the face of these polls and the green on blue incidents, for a continued, albeit reduced, presence of American troops at jointly operated Afghan bases?

Did the participants seek confirmation from Karzai that even if the US agreed to halt night raids he would only sign off on a general strategic partnership document and that the question of basing rights for the Americans would need another year of negotiations? Or was this not raised because of the known Iranian opposition to continued US presence?

Earlier, Gen Allen in his testimony before Congress said that the build-up of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to 352,000 would be completed by the end of 2012 and that these forces would be maintained at that level until 2017. It has been estimated that at present pay and maintenance levels such a force would cost $7-8bn annually.

On the other hand, it appears that Ambassador Grossman had difficulties in securing firm commitments from European allies for a contribution to the $4.1bn annually, post 2014, to support a reduced ANSF force of 230,000. Even if the $4bn target is met who will plug the gap for the three years that the ANSF will remain at its present level?

Certainly, Congress would have no appetite for this in the face of the opinion polls cited earlier and the general weariness with the decade-long conflict. What would be the consequences for stability if the forced demobilisation of lethally trained soldiers added to the ranks of the unemployed in an economy strained by the massive drop in foreign aid?

The Taliban have suspended talks with the US ostensibly because of the latter’s vague and erratic stance. Is this the real reason or is it because the Taliban do not want to publicly renounce ties with Al Qaeda or its affiliates — among the latter would be large sections of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan — or because hard-liners in their ranks believe that they can resist regional pressures, wait for Nato forces to withdraw and then restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan? If the hard-liners prevail in Taliban ranks will the result be anything other than a civil war for which the minority ethnicities are now better prepared than ever before?

Could the participants in the summit take the initiative to seek the appointment of a UN special representative along the lines of the Cuellar/Cordovez mission of the 1980s to bring together the government and ‘armed opposition’, the only precondition being the renunciation by the armed opposition of ties with terrorist organisations?

Could the participants call for a meeting of all regional countries for a reiteration of the 2002 Kabul declaration on good-neighbourly relations and ensure that this time pledges of non-interference would be honoured? Would something along these lines work when vested drug trafficker and warlord interests within Afghanistan actively seek to subvert it? Can the government and opposition in that country, unlikely as it may seem, work together to eliminate this threat?

The quadrilateral summit in Dushanbe coincided with the fifth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan. As against the 11 countries that attended the first conference in Kabul and the 24 that attended the third in Islamabad more than 80 countries and a host of international organisations are present in Dushanbe.

International interest in working for a stable Afghanistan after the Nato withdrawal is obviously at its peak. Any worthwhile initiative by the summit participants and other regional countries will win international support. Pakistan must take the lead because it is Pakistan, as I have shown in earlier columns, that would be most affected by continued instability in Afghanistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.