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No ray of hope

April 10, 2013

IN less than 20 months all coalition forces are due to withdraw from Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai’s outburst against the Americans had raised the question of whether Karzai wanted a residual American presence.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Kabul did result in some fence-mending but the mood in Washington is ugly with influential analyst Leslie Gelb penning an article entitled ‘To Hell with Karzai’. It reflects the rage created by Karzai’s alleged and now denied charge that the Afghan Taliban were colluding with the Americans to provide a pretext for the Americans to extend their stay in Afghanistan.

Clearly even if the Americans stay, they will leave the fighting to the Afghans and focus their own efforts on counterterrorism and training.

Are the Afghans ready to take on this task? Two anti-Taliban operations undertaken over the last week in Kunar and in the Tangi Valley of Wardak indicate otherwise.

While they did not say so directly, reports of American correspondents embedded with the elite Afghan forces in the Wardak and Kunar operations suggested that Afghan forces, the best the Afghans could muster, had no capacity to take on the Afghan Taliban in a substantive way or to hold territory vacated temporarily by the latter.

The Kunar offensive ultimately required the Americans to mount an air operation. This, in deference to Karzai’s orders prohibiting Afghan forces from calling upon coalition forces for assistance, was said to have been mounted at the request of a coalition operator even while maintaining that no coalition forces were involved.

The fact that the operation resulted in the killing of 11 children, along with six insurgents, has further worsened the atmosphere making it even more difficult for Karzai to grant the immunity from Afghan jurisdiction that the Americans will demand for whatever force they choose to leave behind.

In the Tangi Valley of Wardak, a four-day campaign ended with the Afghan army acknowledging as they withdrew that the Taliban returned within hours. The correspondent ended up quoting a Taliban spokesman as saying that “the Afghan and American soldiers were not able to establish their control in the past 12 years” and that the valley would remain under their power forever.

It is perhaps because of well-founded doubts about Afghan capabilities that the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff has said that no decision about the size of the residual presence should be made until the end of the current fighting season. He may be whistling in the wind. Obama and his advisers, I believe, are clear that no more than 8,000 Americans should stay after 2014.

In the meanwhile, in other parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have mounted savage suicide attacks most prominently on a courthouse in Farah province killing more than 44 persons.

Even greater media coverage was offered to a suicide attack on an Afghan/American convoy in Zabul province in which a young American diplomat was killed along with three American soldiers and a number of Afghans. The pace of such attacks is apparently picking up as is evident from the fact that even though the Afghans are now taking the lead, the coalition forces have lost 30 men, 24 of them American, in this year.

More and more stories are appearing about Afghans desperately seeking visas or approaching human traffickers to get out of Afghanistan, about real estate prices in Kabul and other major cities dropping precipitously and the collapse of business confidence as contracts for construction and transport dry up.

A development consultant’s report states the obvious: “Fear of instability in 2014 is driving emigration of the very people and money that could prevent instability.”

Karzai’s recent visit to Qatar, apparently designed to emphasise that no one other than Karzai’s representatives should talk to the Taliban, seems to have yielded no substantive results. Reconciliation remains a dream.

And yet this is a time in which Pakistan and Afghan relations have become highly acrimonious. A Pakistani Foreign Office official told Reuters that “Karzai is the biggest impediment to the peace process” and that “in trying to look like a saviour he is taking Afghanistan straight to hell”.

On the Afghan side, Pakistan has been accused of not releasing Abdul Ghani Baradar, of imposing conditions for its cooperation including breaking Afghan relations with India, signing a Pak-Afghan strategic partnership agreement etc.

The visit of an Afghan military delegation was cancelled because Pakistani artillery attacks had killed innocent civilians in Kunar, where the Pakistani insurgents from Swat have taken shelter. More recently Pakistanis have been accused of violating the border by building a bunker, which the Pakistanis said was only a renovation of a bunker that had existed for some time.

In other words, Pakistan has unwisely vented its frustration about the lack of progress on reconciliation and Afghanistan has responded with the same accusations that have been the hallmark of the chequered relationship.

Neither country can afford this. Afghanistan is in bad shape but Pakistan’s own internal situation has also deteriorated. The ISI told the Supreme Court that the ‘war on terror’ has cost 49,000 lives. The Human Rights Commission has said that in 2012 there were 1,577 terrorist attacks in which some 2,050 civilians were killed.

Violence in Karachi is attributed to ethnic factors and to competition among various extortionist groups but there is no doubt that the increased Taliban presence has exacerbated the situation. Today the army is engaged in a fierce struggle to restore control over Khyber Agency. Failure to do so will leave Peshawar at the mercy of the militants. Much if not all this is owed to Afghanistan’s instability.

The two countries must find ways to talk to each other and to cooperate in advancing reconciliation. This chapter of name-calling must end. Patient diplomacy as practised between two sovereign states must take primacy. That alone can best serve the common interests of the two countries.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.