The scene is frightening in Afghanistan. There is an exponential increase in the number of deadly attacks on the police, Army personnel and civilians. Not only that the remnants of Islamic State (IS) have targeted mosques in both the capital and in Ghor province. Training centres, police headquarters and convoys have also been attacked all over the country. Casualties have mounted.
The bloodbath has caused consternation and anger forcing former president Hamid Karzai to demand the immediate convening of a Loya Jirga or a grand national assembly to take stock of the worsening security situation and take vital decisions on how to deal with the enormous challenge the country is confronting. As grim as the situation is, it is sadly not evoking any vigorous or constructive response from all the major stakeholders. The Afghan government, ensconced in Kabul and sustained by massive infusion of external funding, is desperately seeking to protect the status quo of which they are the principal beneficiaries.
Reconciliation, as long as it does not impinge on the rulers’ positions, perks and powers is welcome.
The regime would support the mainstreaming of Taliban only if the movement would agree to be assimilated in the ‘systems’ that are currently in vogue in the country. In other words, surrender.
The US approach is even more complex and paranoid. It is not prepared to lay down goals that are sought to be achieved. Washington is not revealing its overarching objectives in a regional perspective that it is seeking to promote. Whether the US is prepared to withdraw its forces once reconciliation is reached between the Taliban and Kabul, is not clear. Doubts persist in the absence of a clear strategy. Many believe the Americans are in Afghanistan for a long haul to achieve the following objectives: keep a menacing eye on Pakistan’s nuclear development programme; not cede space to China for establishing its hegemony in the region; establish its relevance in the context of the One Belt, One Road project of China; and derive some benefit from exploitation of Afghanistan’s vast mineral reserves that are estimated in value at $1.5 trillion.
There are reports of the US covertly encouraging and supporting the rise of IS in Afghanistan as a counterweight to Taliban, and also to keep the pot boiling so that the military presence is seen as necessary and justified. The other goal is to weaken the Taliban by making them fight on multiple fronts.
Pakistan does not seem to have any clear policy on how best to bring about reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which would also take care of the US concerns in the area. It has oscillated between positions of collaboration with the US to seeking convergence with Kabul on some issues that, unfortunately, ignore the objective realities.
Other than persuading some Taliban representatives (those few that Islamabad has some leverage with) to come to the negotiating table, there is no clear vision on how could a workable framework be created for resolving the conflict. The problem with all three stakeholders is that they are ignoring the ground realities in Afghanistan. Any attempt to help resolve the conflict can only succeed when it is premised on addressing the root cause of the insurgency. Peripheral measures or treating the symptoms while the fundamental cause that has brought the country to this state, would not deliver.
Contacts between Islamabad, Washington and Kabul are welcome but the problem would not go away by undertaking visits and issuing conciliatory statements. As the insurgency gains further deadly momentum, Afghans across the country are worried, angry and terribly frustrated. Hundreds of thousands have left the country — some offering themselves for recruitment in Iranian militias to fight in Syria. Unemployment has surged, drug addiction is alarming and soldiers deserting the army are a lingering headache.
No step towards normalisation would work unless the root cause, ie, the issue of the presence of foreign forces is addressed. That can only happen if the following conditions are met:
1) The Taliban convert their movement into a political organisation with a clear manifesto that cuts across the ethnic and sectarian divide in the country.
2) Kabul must not insist on mainstreaming the resistance on its own terms; the regime has to be willing to make compromises that include giving up positions of authority, which is is not going to happen anytime soon.
3) The US has to be unequivocal on its position with regard to the withdrawal of all its forces after a consensus has been reached and an accord signed between the Taliban and the government.
4) Pakistan must begin to vigorously pursue the reconciliation efforts that would address the root cause, namely the eventual withdrawal of foreign forces within a stipulated period of time following an agreement between the Taliban and other pro-government forces.
5) China’s role as a mediator must be acknowledged and respected. The Taliban would rely more on Chinese mediation realising that Beijing would not be pressured by the US.
There are no prospects for any breakthrough in the foreseeable future because none of the stakeholders are ready to confront the ground realities. The stalemate, death, destruction and the accompanying suffering and misery will, regrettably, continue. A destabilised Afghanistan will have profound implications for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project, Casa 1000, CPEC and many other regional programmes for socioeconomic emancipation for millions of downtrodden people of the region.
The stakes are high. But peace is being obstructed by the Kabul regime’s concerns for its inclusion and survival and the US’s preoccupation with its regional, hegemonic agenda.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 5th, 2017.