Afghan peace process

16 May

by K. Iqbal

Since the Karzai era, a sinking economy, perpetuating corruption and incompetent security agencies have marred Afghanistan’s domestic environment.
No wonder the fault lines that prompt Afghan leadership towards blaming Pakistan for everything that could go wrong in Afghanistan are snowballing. At a time when President Ashraf Ghani should be unveiling a viable political framework for talks with the Afghan Taliban, he has taken a yet harsher stance against Pakistan and the Taliban that could further complicate the peace process. Last month, the Taliban had refused to sit face-to-face with the government in Kabul under the quadrilateral process comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States. Following the refusal, President Ghani has been under pressure to change his policy on peace and reconciliation with the militant group. In shear frustration, he is treading the path that was followed by his predecessor, which bore no fruit. The silver lining is that the back channel contacts to convince the Taliban to restart the peace process are still functional.

After the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack outside a building of the National Directorate for Security (NDS) in Kabul on April 19, that killed 64 people and injured more than 300 others, Ghani addressed the joint session of Afghan parliament. He retraced from ongoing attempts to engage Taliban in peace talks. He also articulated executing enemies of state and undertaking preparations for an extended war. Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan faced a terrorist enemy led by Taliban “slaves” in Pakistan. He branded the insurgents as criminals, fighting the legitimate government. With Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah quickly calling off a trip to Pakistan scheduled for May 02, the attack on NDS headquarters became perhaps the only issue on which the otherwise estranged leadership of the (dis)unity Afghan government stands united — blame Pakistan for all failures of Afghan security forces and their American mentors.

Commenting on Afghan government’s claim that Pakistan supported the group that carried out the attack, the director of the State Department’s Press Office, Elizabeth Trudeau said: “We have consistently expressed our concerns at the highest level of the government of Pakistan about their continued tolerance for Afghan Taliban groups such as the Haqqani network operating from Pakistani soil… And we did again — after this week’s attack”.

Notwithstanding, the US Defence Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent R Stewart has said in his recent testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee that: “Counter-insurgency operations along Pakistan’s Western border and paramilitary operations in Karachi have had successes in reducing violence and are likely to continue… Zarb-e-Azb has reduced militants’ ability to use Pakistan’s soil.”

Over a period of time a powerful lobby has evolved in Afghanistan whose stakes are better served if the country remains unstable. Ashraf Ghani, otherwise a prudent leader is often swayed by this lobby. Who would know better than him the dynamics of war economy, and power of the interest groups thrown-up by such economies. However, he needs to know more about the political options exercised by other countries which came out of similar turmoil that bedevils today’s Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been pushed back to almost stone-age by the internal conflicts and foreign military aggressions. It badly needs peace and tranquillity, through a healing touch, that could only be achieved by perseverance and statesmanship. While the international community is making an all-out effort to bring Taliban back to the negotiation table, especially through the good offices of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), Ashraf Ghani panics on every bomb blast and every takeover attempt of peripheral middle order urban centre by Taliban. It is difficult to conceive as to how he intends to prepare for an extended war while he is still in the middle of the longest war of contemporary era.

“Will no longer seek Pakistan’s help in peace talks” Afghan president retorted recently. Surprisingly, Ghani wants Pakistan to battle Taliban than try to bring them into peace talks. Pakistan has repeatedly made it clear that it has limited influence over Taliban. Besides the fact that most wanted TTP leaders are holed-up in Afghanistan, Pakistan is trying its best to jump start the peace process.

Afghan Taliban have confirmed that their delegation has visited Pakistan for discussing issues pertaining to refugees, the release of a senior leader and other prisoners. A three-member delegation from the Afghan Taliban’s political office in Qatar arrived in Islamabad on April 25 to discuss the restarting of peace talks with Kabul. “The esteemed leader of Islamic Emirate has instructed the delegation to discuss issues regarding Afghan refugees, some problems about frontier areas and particularly to discuss the release of Mullah Bradar Akhund and some other prisoners,” the Taliban Qatar office said.

Afghan officials in Kabul had also stated they were aware of the visit but that no meeting with the Taliban delegation in Pakistan was held. Some Pakistani officials had earlier stated that a meeting between the Taliban and the representatives of the Afghan government was scheduled in Islamabad on April 27; however, Afghan diplomatic sources said, “Kabul is not in the loop about the visit.” It is not certain whether this delegation met the representatives of Kabul government or other QCG members; in all probability they did.

Ghani has angrily denounced Pakistan for failing to rein in the Taliban. “We want Pakistan to fulfil its promises… and take military action against their sanctuaries and leadership based on its soil. If they can’t target them they should hand them over to our judiciary.” Ghani warned that he would lodge a complaint in the UN Security Council against Pakistan if the country did not take action against the Taliban leaders based on in its soil.

Throughout Ghani’s diatribe, there was no admission of security and intelligence failure; not only on the part of Afghan security agencies but also the US/NATO forces. None out of the two partners seemed embarrassed at the fiasco. In Afghanistan, heads don’t roll when catastrophes strike. Since coming to power, Ghani and Abdullah have been repeatedly locking horns to gain greater control over power. The twin-headed unity government’s internal rifts over appointment of security chiefs, governors and key bureaucrats have been making way for the defiant Taliban insurgent groups.

There is a need for a paradigm shift if the Afghan peace process is to take a sustainable trajectory, the QCG should convince itself that the Afghan Taliban are no more an affiliate of the Al Qaeda, but represent a home grown Afghan nationalist movement. Blaming Pakistan for the Afghan rulers’ failure to either defeat the Taliban in the battlefield or to coax them to come over to their side is not likely to help anyone. Pakistan is in no position to unilaterally engage Haqqanis militarily and succeed. It cannot afford to open a new front with the entity that so far poses no threat to it militarily. As Haqqanis are an integral part of the Taliban under Mullah Akhtar Mansur, any attempt to engage them by the QCG either militarily or for negotiation would be a non-starter. Likewise, attempts to isolate Pakistan diplomatically is going to take nobody anywhere. For Afghanistan and the US piling public pressure on Pakistan at the moment appears to be the preferred tactic — far removed from the broader strategic needs of the region.

Pakistan has mostly exercised restraint at the Afghan leaders’ flare-ups. Ghani’s outburst has been responded to only by reminding his government’s responsibility towards intra-Afghan peace and reconciliation. For long, Afghanistan has been drifting more towards India. With the arrest of Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav and an operative of Afghan NDS operative from Chamman indicate intense collaboration between RAW and NDS, that has become public debate in Pakistan tarnishing the image of Afghan government in the eyes of people of Pakistan.

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