Chances of Succes in Afghanistan Talks
Afghanistan has traditionally remained friendly to India and hostile to Pakistan since 1947. The only time it was friendly with Pakistan and unfriendly with India was during the five-year rule of Taliban from 1996 till 2001. However, no government in Kabul had created a situation along the western border to prevent Pakistan from shifting its three infantry divisions from Peshawar, Kohat and Quetta for exercising offensive options during the wars with India. Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai was worst of all since during his over 13 years rule he allowed five foreign intelligence agencies to use Afghan soil for carrying out covert war in FATA and Baluchistan at a massive scale. As a consequence, 180,000 troops have got pinned down in FATA. Mercifully, Frontier Corps has kept 12 Corps free in Baluchistan.
The incumbent unity government in Kabul installed in November 2014 is the second government which is friendly to Pakistan but is also friendly to India. The flaw in this setup is the forcible marriage of convenience midwifed by the US between Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah after their prolonged estrangement. The latter heading Northern Alliance is highly pro-India and averse to Pakistan, although his aversion has now considerably mellowed down as a consequence to sustained efforts put in by the ISI and some others.
Even though Abdullah wants to come closer to Pakistan, but his tilt towards India remains as pronounced as ever and is not likely to come out of India’s magic spell in the foreseeable future. With 50% cabinet ministries in the unity government, he holds controls on important portfolio of intelligence. As a result, influence of India’s RAW in Afghanistan has not diminished. RAW continues to patronise runaway TTP leaders like Maulana Fazlullah and Khalid Omar Khurasani based in Kunar and Nangahar respectively. While enumerating his foreign policy priorities, Ghani placed Pakistan, Iran and China well above India. He undertook his maiden visits to China and Pakistan. He also cancelled arms deal and military training agreements with India and instead sent cadets to PMA Kakul for training for the first time. Rapport between government to government and army to army intensified as a result of flurry of exchange of visits. Afghan Army chief reviewed the parade in Kakul for the first time. Both sides took practical measures to improve border security situation and intelligence sharing to tackle common threat of terrorism. All these developments consternated India which was all set to fill up the security vacuum left behind by the withdrawing US-NATO troops and to complete encirclement around Pakistan. Ghani was pressured by Abdullah to visit New Delhi to allay India’s reservations that closeness with Pakistan will not be at the cost of India.
Hamid Karzai and ex NDS chief Amrullah Saleh have joined hands with Abdullah to keep Ghani under pressure and force him to shift his tilt from Pakistan to India. Ghani who has made substantial contributions in reforming financial systems as finance minister has no political roots. He is caught between the rock and a hard place. On one hand, he has to bear the pressure from within his government led by Abdullah and backed by Karzai led faction of Pashtuns, and on the other is the surging Taliban who enjoy influence over 75% of Afghan territory. They are primed up to intensify their spring offensive and find the obtaining environment rapidly changing in their favor. Currently, they have besieged northeastern capital of Kanduz and tough battle is raging. They detest Bilateral Security Agreement, which has allowed the US to retain 12000 troops till 2016. Obama had announced that by mid 2015 he would withdraw 50% of residual force, but now the US seems to be having second thoughts on gradual reduction of troops.
This change of heart has occurred in the wake of outstanding successes achieved by Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which not only pushed out anti-Pakistan militants from North Waziristan (NW) but also anti-US militant groups such as Haqqani network and Hafiz Gul Bahadur group that had become dicey. This across the board operation which has broken the back of militants has brought a visible change in the perceptions of Afghan, US, Western and Chinese leaders and in turn has enhanced the respect and prestige of Pakistan. The US military felt that with the dismantlement of safe haven in NW, it had become easier for the Afghan National Army (ANA) backed by US airpower/intelligence support to deal with the militants in eastern Afghanistan and thus defeat the Taliban. However, when no success could be achieved at their end and the Taliban continued to strike targets at will in all parts of the country, the option of dialogue has been renewed. Doha talks had stalled in June 2013 because of Karzai’s negativity.
Current effort is based on two prongs, one prong led by Ghani and the other by the US and in both cases, Pakistan has been asked to assist. China has also been given a green signal to play its role in restoring peace in Afghanistan. Ghani kept urging the Taliban to join the unity government, and this was one reason of 106 days delay in forming the 16-member cabinet duly approved by Afghan parliament, but the Taliban didn’t agree. Obama struck off Afghan Taliban from the category of terrorists and termed them as insurgents fighting for their rights. He also declared that US troops would not fire at Taliban unless provoked by them. Several airstrike requests from ANA have been turned down. All these were reconciliatory moves to induce the Taliban to negotiate and arrive at a political settlement and convince them to share power.
Having failed to defeat the Taliban after spending billions of dollars and using excessive force/torture as well as underhand tricks to divide the Taliban, the US is left with no other option but to patch up with the Taliban whom they had all these years been projecting as uncivilized, crude terrorists deserving no mercy. The Taliban had been wrongly removed from power in November 2001 and then consistently hounded and persecuted. The Taliban on the other hand continued to fight back to free their homeland from foreign occupation. Unlike in 1980s when the Afghan Mujahedeen fought and defeated the Soviet occupying forces duly helped by Pakistan and the free world, this time the Taliban performed the miracle single-handedly and under much adverse conditions.
One reason behind frantic efforts to negotiate with the Taliban is not-so-happy operational preparedness of the ANA to confront the Taliban challenge. It may not be possible for the US to continue dishing out $4.1 billion per year for the upkeep of Afghan security forces for long. Other reason is inherent weakness of unnatural unity government engaged in power tussle. Most of cabinet ministers including four women are new faces, moderate and pro-west and have little experience of state-craft. Ghani’s effort to curtail corruption is being fiercely resisted.
Other than the factor of impressive results achieved in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the other factor which has enhanced the importance of Pakistan is its nearness with Taliban. Both the US and Afghan regime carry the impression that Pakistan is in a position to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. While it is true that Pakistan does have some influence over Taliban leaders since quite many were in its custody all these years, it is not in a position to make them agree to the terms sought by the US. It can also not give any guarantee to the Taliban that Afghan regime will abide by the terms of agreement arrived at. Pakistan and China are however trying hard to create conducive conditions for talks, but both are clear that the ultimate solution will have to be found by the Afghans themselves and they can at best facilitate dialogue. As a consequence to these silent efforts, the wheels of talks have started to churn slowly in Doha and the Taliban have in principle agreed to open their office there for the initiation of formal political dialogue, but the way things stand, nothing is likely to come out of it. Unless demands of Taliban seeking complete withdrawal of foreign troops and bringing the US tailored constitution in line with Sharia are met, high hopes nurtured by stakeholders will remain elusive. It will be like using shaker in a pitcher full of water and hoping to extract butter.
Negotiated political settlement leading to broad based government with Taliban, giving representation to them as per their demographic strength will be an ideal arrangement since it will prevent civil war and benefit Ashraf Ghani’s faction, Pakistan and China but may not be that beneficial for Abdullah and non-Pashtun Northern Alliance since its power base will shrink. It will also not suit India since balance of power will shift towards Pakistan friendly Afghan Pashtun. Iran will also not be happy. In case a settlement is reached without meeting the two demands of Taliban, the implication is that there will be strong resentment among the rank and file of the Taliban and other resistance forces. It will become very difficult for Mullah Omar who has not been seen by anyone since December 2001 and is reportedly not keeping very good health, to control the dissenters. It will lead to destructive infighting which will be further stoked by India and other foreign powers and may lead to division of Afghanistan. Weakening of Taliban will create space for Da’esh in Afghanistan, which will be more dangerous for the whole region, since Da’esh is vying to re-establish ancient Khurasan state, which comprised of parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
‘East Turkistan’ movement is the most dangerous threat to the stability and security of Sinkiang Province and support of Taliban and TTP to Uighars is regarded by China as most serious external threat. Afghanistan had become base of operation of Uighars during five-year Taliban rule. To win over Afghanistan, China has been steadily increasing its economic support. So far, its total investment in various development project totals $10 billion, and it has procured biggest exploratory projects of oil and gas as well as construction of refinery. Pakistan is playing a key role in creating goodwill space for China in Afghanistan and in mending its relations with Taliban.
Turmoil in Afghanistan will be to the advantage of adversaries of Muslims and to the big disadvantage of Pakistan. It wil also adversely impact China’s economic aggression in the region and its plan to connect Gwadar with Afghanistan. In order to prevent the chaos, China, Pakistan and Iran should collectively help the intra-Afghan dialogue to proceed smoothly till comprehensive political settlement benefiting all factions of Afghans irrespective of ethnic divisions. Best course is to honor the collosal sacrifices of the Taliban and let them form the future broad based government without outside interference.
The writer is war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, member Executive Council PESS, Director Measac Research Centre, Director Board of Governors TFP. firstname.lastname@example.org