Today, signs of positive developments in Afghanistan are not that dim or hopeless. The recently-concluded trilateral summit involving Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan signified that the Afghan endgame is for real and that each side is willing to talk to the other. There is good evidence of more hopeful signs to come.
Firstly, at no time in modern history has the international community paid so much attention to Afghanistan or invested so much in blood and money as it has done during the past decade.
The western powers, even in the face of setbacks are not likely to walk away from Afghanistan, leaving it in a condition of civil strife. They have shown remarkable resilience in rebuilding the Afghan state, including its security forces, infrastructure and economic life. There is now a foundation for further reconstruction. This has left benign effects on the confidence of the Afghan government and sent a strong message to the Taliban that the world will not allow it to reconquest the country.
Secondly, there is an emerging regional and international consensus on a peaceful, unified and stable Afghanistan. It is still informal, a bit ambiguous, but nonetheless a very strong sentiment. Wars in Afghanistan have caused a sense of statelessness and power vacuum, which have created hubs for militants and regional and international militancy. This lesson is not lost on any rational player bearing the ugly scars of terrorism so obvious on their social milieu. All major states, including Pakistan, India, China and the western powers would like to ensure that Afghanistan will not lapse back to the kind of anarchy that led to the civil war which resulted in the emergence of the Taliban and entry of al Qaeda into the Afghan power game. But much of this consensus will only work for everyone if only the endgame is negotiated in a way that produces peace, stability and order, in which the concerns and interests of the major powers within the region are accommodated.
Thirdly, the overall political and infrastructural capacities of the Afghan state, though still in an evolutionary stage, are better than they were under the mujahideen or Najibullah. Its fledgling defence capacity and the residual attack forces of the United States, in and around the country, may prevent a sudden collapse of the Afghan state — the same manner in which it crumbled under the Taliban attack during 1994 and 1996. But still, it will be too optimistic to bet on the Afghan state to fight and survive against a determined, motivated and ethnically rooted militia, like the Taliban, in a long-drawn scenario. Had that been the case, there was no need for negotiating the endgame. At present, however, the confidence in the Afghan government to defend itself is too shallow and shaky.
Finally, the United States and its allies, for more than one reason want an end to the war — it is costly, has taken too much time and the economic and national outlooks have changed to seek political alternatives to the war. After reviewing and changing Afghan strategies during the two administrations, Washington seems to be settling on negotiating with the Taliban. The indications of change in American policy that surprised many observers began the day US President Barack Obama announced to the Afghans, the Americans and the world that his country would start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in 2011 and will complete this process by the end of 2014.
This change of policy removed many ambiguities about American intentions and reset the button on Afghanistan with a clear message to the Afghan government to prepare itself for a greater responsibility. The Taliban have also got the message that Afghanistan will not remain under foreign ‘occupation’.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2012.