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Cautious optimism on Afghanistan

July 14, 2012

AS the 2014 deadline for the exit of most Nato forces nears, there is growing concern about the endgame in Afghanistan.

Thus far, most of the views expressed about the shape of things to come are from western ‘experts’. So it was refreshing — and sobering — to hear two authentic Afghan voices on the subject.

They were both on a panel discussion organised by the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). Held at the ancient Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament recently, the topic of the debate was ‘Afghanistan after Nato Pulls Out: Will it Stand or Fall?’

Gen Khodaidad was minister for narcotics in the Karzai government, having served earlier as defence minister in the Najibullah administration before it collapsed in 1992. The second Afghan was Ajmal Khan Zazai, chairman of an organisation known as the United Afghan Tribes.

Both were very scornful of Karzai’s abilities, and blamed him for much of the mess their country is in today. Basically, Ajmal Khan accused the US of forcing Karzai to accept a number of nasty warlords in his government. Subsequently, the Afghan president cut deals with several criminals and established a network of patronage to maintain his grip.

“How,” Ajmal Khan asked dramatically, referring to figures from the American mafia. “Can you expect a decent government from characters like Al Capone and Scarface?”

He accused the occupation forces of not understanding local culture, and undercutting the authority of tribal leaders. He reminded the audience that more than anything else, people were fighting against Karzai as much as they were resisting Nato occupation. In his view, placing Karzai in charge after the Taliban was akin to “replacing one evil with another”.

Gen Khodaidad complained about the absence of heavy weapons like artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, as well as aircraft in the Afghan National Army. According to him, the quality of troops being recruited and trained now was very poor. In fact, the army in Najibullah’s time was far more effective and better trained.

He went on to explain that western forces had no clue about local sensitivities, and therefore alienated conservative tribesmen by their presence and actions. Also, the Afghan army had drawn the majority of its officers from non-Pakhtun minorities like the Tajiks, and was therefore suspect in the eyes of the Pakhtuns.

Both Afghan panellists were supported by Lucy Morgan Edwards, a development expert and author of The Afghan Solution: The Inside Story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and How Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan. Edwards was scathing about the induction of warlords into the power structure by Nato, and the hijacking of the state-building process by foreign occupation troops. This view was echoed by Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP, who was contrite about the Nato failure to train Afghan police and army much earlier.

Perhaps the most interesting intervention came from Rahul Roy-Chaudhury of the International Institute of Strategic Studies who spoke about the post-2014 scenario. He was “cautiously optimistic” about an Indo-Pak proxy war breaking out in Afghanistan after the Nato pullout.

Giving his reasons, he pointed to the recent thaw in the relations between the traditional adversaries, the improvement in trade, and the growing realisation in both countries that a civil war in Afghanistan would be a disaster for the region. According to Roy-Chaudhry, the dream of “strategic depth” was fading in the minds of Pakistani generals.

In the question and answer session, I said I wished I could share the panellist’s optimism. However, given the prevailing mindset in our defence establishment, Pakistan would need some reassurances that India would not seek to enhance its influence in Kabul. Military planners in Pakistan continue to view the possibility of Indo-Afghan encirclement as their worst nightmare.

Chairing the discussion was Humphrey Hawksley of the BBC. In his opening remarks, he made the point that the recent pledge of $16bn in economic aid to Afghanistan for the next four years underlined western commitment. However, Gen Khodaidad was of the view that the Karzai government was incapable of spending the money effectively.

In the vote on the proposition ‘will Afghanistan stand or fall?’, the participants were divided, with both Afghans remaining very sceptical about the endgame unless Karzai was removed from power. The truth is that even when Karzai is no longer president after the 2014 elections — as he cannot stand for a third term — there is no guarantee that his successor will be any better.

Under the Afghan constitution, there are no political parties, and votes are therefore divided among a large number of candidates. Thus, while a candidate can succeed with a relatively small number of votes, his acceptance will always be limited.

But in the midst of so much gloom over Afghanistan, the recent interview of a Taliban leader reported in the Guardian made for hopeful reading. Talking to Michael Semple, a former UN envoy to Kabul, the Afghan (referred to as ‘Mawlvi’ to protect his identity), admitted that he did not think the Taliban had any chance of capturing power.

This realistic assessment makes it possible to take a somewhat optimistic view of the post-2014 scenario. If the Taliban do not seek to return to Kabul, then a power-sharing arrangement among various ethnic groups can be envisaged without a return to civil strife that would inevitably suck in external powers.

As Ajmal Khan pointed out, Afghanistan had many mineral resources that could be extracted by Indian and Pakistani mining groups. This would be of benefit to all three countries.

Sadly, logic is all too often trumped by an irrational concept of narrow national interest. But in the long run, it is the profit motive that provides the glue for a lasting peace.

Whether politicians in all three countries are capable of seizing the opportunities rather than squabbling about control and influence remains to be seen. Thus far, both India and Pakistan have failed to demonstrate the maturity needed to ensure a peaceful transition in Afghanistan. But both have a role to play if genuine peace is to return to our war-ravaged neighbour.

As history has taught us, outsiders have brought nothing but warfare and bloodshed to Afghanistan. If India and Pakistan can cooperate in this case, perhaps they will be able to live as good neighbours in the future.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com