Working beyond ‘talk’ in Afghanistan

By: Mian Sanaullah

The flurry of political activities witnessed during the month of April involving regional and extra regional states under normal conditions should have raised the prospects for considerable reduction in civil war and terrorists acts in Afghanistan.  But the common strand, which still runs central to all developments, shows that not much would change for the region. In essence, basic attitudes and policies remain the same.

Unfortunately, Kabul and Islamabad are still caught up in terrorism as major powers continue to wallow in geopolitical rivalries, enhancing their respective influence. Despite recent bilateral contacts between two neighbours, the lingering mistrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan is unlikely to diminish in coming months. The biggest problem is that each stakeholder as a tactic has been fraternising with financial and political vested interests embedded with instability. In the process, the forest is being lost for trees. However, we may see more interaction between the two countries.

The Russia sponsored third conference (April 14) involving Russia, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Central Asian states and the Afghan government was the first serious attempt to forge understanding and consensus among regional powers. The underlying idea was to develop talks between Kabul and Taliban. All participants failed to abridge their differences. Unfortunately, US did not attend the Conference; rather it continued to suspect that Russia is trying to enhance its “influence” and therefore undermining the present Afghan government and US by providing weapons to Taliban.

The second seminal event was the visit of US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to the region, staring from April 16.  His visit underlined the impression that the Trump administration has finally reached a decision to overview its Afghan policy.

In Afghanistan, McMaster gave an indication that the new US administration remained committed to the Kabul Government. While his visit may be reassuring to Afghanistan, it was not void of warning shots for Pakistan. In a TV interview, he said, Pakistan should secure its interests in Afghanistan through “diplomacy not through the use of proxies that engage in violence”. He advised Pakistan to “go after” all terrorists.

Then, he came to Pakistan (April 16) and met the Prime Minister, the Army Chief, and the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs. The media reports claim that he emphasized “the need to confront terrorism in all its forms” while praising democratic and economic development. Though he gave little indication whether the Trump administration would adopt a new, tougher policy on Pakistan, it was clear that he did not swing too far off President Obama’s last phase policy, asking Pakistan to do more with regard to denying the use of its soil against the Kabul government, “confront all terrorists”. Pakistan downplayed the warning. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif conveyed Pakistan’s readiness to work with the international community to solve the Afghan crisis.

In New Delhi (April 18), he discussed Afghanistan’s situation with the Indian Prime Minister.  The U.S. Embassy confirmed that the two sides also discussed ways to increase defense and counter-terrorism cooperation. Predictably, Pakistan did not feel comfortable, especially after confession statements from an Indian spy agent Kulbhushan Yadav and Taliban’s former spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ehsan and taking McMaster in confidence on both these issues. The Indian role in Afghanistan remains anathematic and unacceptable to Pakistan.

Just three days after the visit of McMaster to Pakistan, an enormous security breach and deadly attack in Afghanistan, killing over 130 Afghan soldiers, was reported. The attack took place on a military base in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Afghanistan’s Balkh province. Pakistan decided to dispatch on April 26, a high military delegation to Kabul to talk about border co-ordination measures and to reassure the Afghan government and its military establishment that the Pakistan Army was fully committed to defeat terrorists of all hue and shade. The meeting in a way was a follow up of the agreed mechanization to manage border infiltration at the London conference among the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser, Hanif Atmar, and British National Security Advisor Sir Mark Lyall Grant. The discussions somewhat defused tensions. The Afghan authorities were conveyed that Pakistan Army would not allow its soil to be used against Afghanistan.

The visit took place a day after the Pakistan Army released a ‘confessional’ video showing former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaat ul Ahrar spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan, in which the militant claimed that the TTP and JA have been coordinating with Indian and Afghan security agencies to move freely in Afghanistan. The highlights of his recorded statement was his disclosure about the role of NDS and RAW in using groups such as TTP to create unrest in Pakistan. Afghanistan strongly refuted Ehsan’s claim.

Irrespective of Pakistan claims, the dividends of this initiative are bound to be minimal.  If the military delegation really aimed to ally the Afghan apprehensions, common sense dictates that the confessional video should have been handed over to the Afghan Military though this delegation for a response. If there were outright denial and no action, then it could be diplomatically right to air the same in Pakistan.

Another important development, which could marginally impact on Afghan-Pakistan relations, is the return of Afghan warlord and ex-prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar  (April 29) to public life after more than 20 years in exile, calling on the Taliban to lay down their weapons and join a “caravan of peace”. Intriguingly, he too did not refrain from accusing neighbours of Afghanistan of fueling instability in his country and had the audacity to say, “Don’t ignite fire in our home, don’t kill us and don’t interfere in our domestic affairs.”

Another development involves the April 30 visit of National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq with 15-member parliamentary delegation of top leaders from both houses of parliament to Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani held 5-hour head to head meeting with the delegation and categorically said that time for peace in the region “is running short”. He warned that if the two states failed to address the challenges now, the consequences could be disastrous for both countries. Ghani stressed a “five principles” approach, comprising a prime focus on the state-to-state relations instead of seeking peace with individual groups, honoring each other’s sovereignty, ensuring no use of their territory against each other, agreement on a common definition of terrorism and opening up of transit trade.

Can the leadership in both Pakistan and Afghanistan rise above the lingering mistrust? The short answer is that they can, provided they start delivering on their rhetorical policy of non-use of their territory for proxy wars.  No single state can deliver peace and end the current woes of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Both states have to come out of their false comfort zones that with its support alone, the other can live in peace. If the national reconciliation process has to be Afghan led and Afghan owned, Pakistan should have the choice to strengthen its border management and where necessary the right to fence.  Endless maligning will continue to complicate the chaos.

The Afghan solution maybe three staged: first the Afghan government has to decide whether the current National Reconciliation TORs need thorough revision to persuade Taliban to consider joining the talks with the government, second Pakistan and Afghanistan have to discard their baggage of blames and counter-blames and initiate leadership dialogue. Third, a wider regional alliance with active involvement of UN should be set up to ensure that the agreed measures at bilateral level are implemented. Indeed, the first stage is more complex and hard to achieve than the second stage and the second stage more difficult than the third one.

Short-term stability is possible to achieve with additional US and NATO troops. But one should not forget that the world is facing a 16 years old active war in Afghanistan which in its own mysterious ways is actively threatening strategic interests of regional big powers and the global foreign policy agenda of the receding single super power. Neither the hardening of US policy against Pakistan, nor Russia-led alliance minus US will deliver permanent peace in the region. Terrorism is a global phenomenon. It requires global approach, starting from treating the root causes rather than symptoms. If the war is between “barbarism and civilization”, the world must come up with a long-range strategic approach to ensure positive developments. This strategy must include a commitment from the US to work with regional powers, without playing geostrategic game at the cost of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at mian.sana@gmail.com.

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