PERHAPS the best news to emerge concerning Afghanistan over the last few days is the five-day visit of the Afghan defence minister Gen Bismillah Khan Mohammadi to Pakistan at the invitation of our army chief.
The visit is in response to an invitation that Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani had extended in November 2012 at a tripartite meeting on border security. It has been, judging by initial press reports, a good beginning to establishing the sort of trust that is needed for genuine cooperation in tackling the common problem of terrorism and to carry forward an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process of reconciliation.
The normally cautious ISPR, the military’s media wing, in its press statement has focused on only two elements, the first of which was the initiation of an “enduring training relationship” between the armed forces of the two countries.
Apparently, during the remaining part of the visit, Gen Bismillah and his team, which includes the commandant of the Afghan National Defence College, will be hosted at Pakistan’s army training establishments. Hopefully, Afghan officers will be sent to the Pakistani National Defence University and other institutes.
There may well be a formal agreement on the deputation of Pakistani officers to help set up new Afghan training institutes and to man existing institutes from which Nato officers will, for the most part, be withdrawn as the drawdown of forces occurs. If this happens, it will be a welcome change from the earlier position of the Afghans not being able to avail of the offer of seats in these institutes that had been made some years ago. At that time it was said that the Pakistan offer was not generous enough in terms of the stipends and other facilities that the Afghan trainees would receive.
The second element was a discussion of the Standard Operating Procedures agreed upon in November for ensuring border security. One hopes that this was not a point of discord.
To my mind, however, the most important point was the reiteration by Gen Bismillah of Afghan gratitude for the Pakistani release of Afghan Taliban prisoners to facilitate reconciliation. This followed the statement by our foreign secretary in Dubai earlier this month after the meeting of the core group — Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US — that Pakistan would release all the Taliban it was holding.
It was important because both in the American and Afghan press there have been critical articles claiming that the whereabouts of the Taliban detainees released so far were not known or that those released had joined the ranks of Taliban fighters rather than talking to the Kabul government. Clearly the Karzai administration continues to be confident that these releases will further the reconciliation process.
As one looks at the current situation in Afghanistan, it is apparent that reconciliation alone offers the prospect of bringing a modicum of peace to the country which is ill-prepared for the economic consequences of the withdrawal of foreign forces and the expected drop in economic activity.
It is even less prepared to continue the battle against the insurgents not merely because the Afghan National Security Forces are not yet a fully trained fighting force but because they cannot operate without the support of the aviation units and Special Operation forces provided by Nato, particularly the US forces.
Illustrative of the problems that the Afghan forces have to contend with is the grim Pentagon statistic that the number of Americans killed by improvised explosive devices (IED) was 104 in 2012. This was a considerable drop when compared to the figure of 196 in 2011, but in the same period the number of Afghan security forces killed by IEDs rose by 124 per cent to more than 1,100. The attrition rate in the army has been rising at the rate of 3.1 per cent of the total force. Army units that have achieved a measure of competence, such as the Afghan corps in Helmand, are handicapped in the fight against the insurgents because the police are non-functional and many units are therefore manning checkposts rather than fighting.
This is not a force that can defeat the Afghan Taliban and bring peace.
Political problems are also multiplying. President Hamid Karzai has prevailed upon the Independent Election Commission to withdraw its proposal for re-registering all voters because this would be too costly, and to confine new registration only to those who had not been registered for the earlier election in 2009.
The opposition has reacted strongly, claiming that this would mean a fraudulent electoral exercise. There have been calls for the international community to intervene not only to get this decision reversed but also to reinstate the Elections Complaints Commission, a body that Karzai, in the legislation he has proposed, intends to abolish and replace with a special bench of the Afghan Supreme Court. This is clearly a recipe for political turmoil and for deepening the ethnic divide that has sharpened in recent months.
The coming economic slump is now clearly visible. Construction firms are getting no new contracts and much of the sophisticated equipment acquired during the building boom now stands idle. More and more educated Afghans employed with high salaries in foreign NGOs that are winding up operations or at foreign military bases now being shut down are desperately seeking, and not finding, other employment.
Perhaps more importantly, there has been a precipitate decline in real estate prices in Kabul as people try to liquidate Afghan assets and invest them abroad. A prevalent joke in Kabul is that prices in Peshawar’s posh Hayatabad suburb are rising in direct proportion to the fall in prices in Kabul. There has been a steep rise in the number of immigration visa-seekers at virtually every embassy in Kabul.
There is little that any government in Afghanistan can do to mitigate the ill-effects of the economic difficulties that will follow the foreign forces’ withdrawal. The government can, if Karzai chooses, quell the political turbulence that the opposition will certainly create if issues pertaining to the conduct of the 2014 elections are not resolved, by negotiating a compromise.
But the only way to avoid chaos lies in advancing reconciliation. Pakistan’s essential cooperation is on offer and can be increased but it is now for Karzai and his team to move ahead.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.