Afghanistan: Competing narratives
Monday, December 31, 2012 – America’s Afghanistan policy is pegged around a strategy of deliberate ambiguity. At a time when Afghan resistance groups needed a healing touch, putting Haqqanis on terror list, while at the same time wishing to engage them in peace process, has radiated confusing signals. When all resistance groups are unequivocal about complete withdrawal of foreign troops and creation of a new political dispensation, American pressure on incumbent Afghan government for stationing its military contingent in Afghanistan is creating an environment of strategic uncertainty. This vagueness has given rise to speculative scenario building based on various degrees of rollback of American influence, viz. total hands off; partial military withdrawal; complete military pullout while retaining economic and political influence of varying degree etc are some of the assumptions.
In line with its track record of being a rowing super power, American focus has shifted elsewhere, irrespective of the achievability of stated objectives in Afghanistan. Now Afghanistan is only of periphery interest to America. Persistent lowering of the bar in the context of envisaged objectives indicates that Americans are in a hurry to quit. American public is war weary and it is eagerly pursuing early and complete withdrawal. Moreover, it is a candid opinion that if the American interest is to keep Afghanistan instable enough to prevent flow of Central Asian Carbohydrates to South Asia, then presence or otherwise of foreign forces would equally yield this objective for at least short to medium timeframe. However, if Afghanistan is to be stabilized then a systematic transition alongside a systemic viability is to be ensured; as of now, there are glaring gaps in the efforts towards these objectives.
Recently, the US Senate has approved, by a heavy majority of 62 to 33, a resolution calling for the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. The mover of the resolution, Senator Jeff Merkley, said that the time had come to withdraw from Afghanistan as Al-Qaeda was no longer in a position to launch a major attack on American soil, and thus the long war should be brought to an end. Another opinion has it that a US military contingent is needed for the Afghan elections in 2014, when some other collaborator than Hamid Karzai must be found to be the President. Both ways, it is an implicit admission of the failure of the US strategy.
Afghan narrative came to fore during the recent Paris Conference. Maulvi Shahbuddin Dilawar and Doctor Muhammad Naeem participated in the conference as representatives of the political office of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. The Afghan Taliban have called for a new constitution as a pre-condition for joining the peace process. “Afghanistan’s present constitution has no value for us because it was made under the shadows of B-52 bombers of the invaders.
Taliban’s Chief negotiator Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar underlined the need for constitutional amendments to “protect personal, political and social rights of the people and to ensure equal rights to all communities without discrimination… Afghan scholars will draft a constitution in a free atmosphere that will be presented to the people for approval…The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers amendments to the constitution necessary for the balance of power in the future Islamic government”. He declared that: “We are not looking to monopolize power. We want an all Afghan inclusive government. Our respected Amir-ul-Momineen, Mullah Muhammad Omar has repeatedly called for understanding and reconciliation. Mullah Omar respects his political opponents.”
He further stated that foreigners and the Kabul regime are not interested in the peace process and they are ‘not willing to pursue the principles of peace’. He argued that: “Had the invaders believed in peace, they would have listened to the just proposals…We believe that the 2014 elections are not beneficial for solving the Afghan quandary because these elections are planned under invasion and will take place during ongoing occupation, therefore the results shall be no different than the previous elections. All observed that the 2004 and 2009 elections did not lessen but increased problems for the Afghans”.
Afghanistan is in a state of perpetual turmoil. Multilateral processes initiated at various venues like Bonn, Istanbul, Islamabad, Kabul, Doha, Tokyo etc have not been able to translate in to an enabling environment for political reconciliation and reintegration of militants, which are two foundation stones for lasting peace. Major causes of stagnation are a complexly woven pattern of intra-Afghan suspicions and criss-crossing lines of mistrust at bilateral and multi-lateral levels. Unless these factors are taken into account and a corrective campaign is launched, various actors would continue to operate at cross purposes. Intra- Afghan harmony has always been a difficult objective to achieve, and tricky to sustain. Ethno-sectarian fault lines are deep seeded; they have external strings as well as domestic dynamics. These realities cannot be undone, yet there is sufficient tactical and strategic space to construct durable peace process.
All indicators point toward an early withdrawal of occupation forces. Pakistan should brace up for a situation in Afghanistan emerging out of complete troops withdrawal by America while struggling for retention of substantial politico-economic influence. However, contingency arrangements should be kept in place to meet the outfalls of retention of a de-scaled garrison and, as a pressure tactic, keeping the American military bases on appropriate readiness status to fly in additional troops, should the situation so demand. Western diplomats, who were sceptical for years about Pakistani promises, now admit that Islamabad is serious about promoting stability in Afghanistan. “They seem to genuinely want to move towards a political solution,” said an official from an EU country. Western diplomats candidly opine that Pakistan’s army chief has made reconciliation amongst warring Afghan factions his top priority.
Pakistan should take a look at Afghanistan in a wholesome way; it should strive for a democratic transition based on one person-one-vote basis. Pakistan should dispel the impression of favouring any particular ethnic group; it needs to own all Afghans.
(Air Cdre Khalid Iqbal (R)