One of the keys to solving Afghanistan’s prolonged conflict, writes Ashis Ray, is linking aid to Pakistan to cooperation vis-à-vis its western neighbour
Considering that India is a developing country, no nation has stretched its resources to the extent it has to contribute to a reconstruction of Afghanistan.
A peaceful solution to Afghanistan’s problems, as the United States and the West as a whole have realised after 18 years of the war against terror, has reached a cul de sac. It has also come at an enormous cost to Afghanistan itself, with 62,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen killed since 2001, and 24,000 civilians in the past decade alone. At the end of it, 40-50 per cent of Afghan territory is now under Taliban control. The bottom line is that Afghan security forces would be hard put to resist the Taliban without US operational support.
So, is it or is it not the objective of the democratic world to ensure that al-Qaeda and ISIS do not get a foothold in Afghanistan?
It should, of course, be admitted that, not with standing the huge investment of the international community, Afghan authorities have not performed to par in terms of governance, security, human rights and development. Furthermore, election results have been disputed and the electoral process has excluded the Taliban and has, therefore, not been fully representative.
Gautam Mukhopadhaya knows Afghanistan as well as anyone. He held the fort for India in Kabul as the Indian ambassador from 2010 to 2013. Speaking on the prevailing narrative at a closed door session at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, he remarked. ‘There is no alternative to a negotiated peace in which the West negotiates its security interests and the Afghans negotiate their political system. As the US is in a hurry, it has become necessary to jump-start the talks by direct talks with the Taliban, bringing the Afghans in later. But,’ warned Mukhopadhaya, ‘though superficially seductive, this narrative is flawed on several counts – logical, political and security – and, far from bringing peace and stability, it could have profound security and other implications for Afghanistan, the region and beyond.’
He expanded by saying that ‘the issue is not peace, but what kind of peace’, and that the talks ‘are not really led by the Afghan people, but by outside powers driven by their own interests’. The US compulsion is to quit its military commitment in Afghanistan, while the Russian desire is ‘to make the most of the US discomfiture’. The two superpowers are agreed on one point, however – that extremism and terrorism should not spill over onto their soil or spheres of influence.
Pakistan has historically been a part of the problem. It has arrogantly considered Afghanistan to be its backyard, a policy that has naturally been insulting to Kabul. Iran’s attitude is more complex, while China is wary of Islamic violence permeating into Xinjiang.
The ‘framework’ of a deal between the Americans and the Taliban revolves around a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in lieu of guarantees that Afghan territory will no longer be a staging post for terrorists who can strike the US. Mukhopadhaya felt that ‘having achieved international recognition through the US- and Russian-led peace talks and sensing blood, the Taliban are in no mood to compromise; and one cannot escape the feeling that the concessions being offered on the table are just a smokescreen to grab power. The Afghan people want peace, but peace on their terms and at their pace.’
It was made clear by those who engaged in the recent multilateral conference in Moscow that Afghans would at the very least wish to preserve the gains of the last 17 years. Moreover, a legitimisation of the Taliban by the US, Russia and Pakistan, which in effect reduces an elected Afghan government to just one of the participants in an intra-Afghan dialogue, would be an undermining of Afghanistan’s generally appreciated constitutional order and the consensus reached at a Bonn meeting. This could also create a dangerous political and security vacuum reminiscent of the 1990s. Mukhopadhaya accused the United Kingdom of doing ‘more than any other country to legitimise the Taliban’.
It is a moot point as to whether the Taliban can abandon their inherent adulation of extremist Islamist forces. More importantly, their control of vast expanses of Afghanistan is not based on any popular mandate, but enforced by the barrel of the gun. And they are a destabilising factor acting at the behest of the Pakistani army.
The US cannot be unaware that the playing field has changed. Washington’s cancellation of $1.3 billion of military aid to Pakistan has bitten its armed forces hard. Over and above, Islamabad’s critical trade deficit renders it highly vulnerable, with neither China nor the Arab world agreeable to provide cash assistance, which is what the Pakistani exchequer desperately needs. So, shouldn’t the US exploit Rawalpindi’s weakness to its own and the world’s advantage?
An American diplomat with first-hand experience of the Af-Pak region claimed the process has begun by restoring training of Pakistani military officers in the US – which was a part of the aid. This concession helped to persuade Pakistan to release the captured Indian air force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. But any further reinstatement of US military assistance and the International Monetary Fund granting a bailout for Pakistan should be linked to complete and unbreakable cooperation on Afghanistan and regional peace. Significantly, the diplomat remarked: ‘We talk directly to ’Pindi.’
One has to give the US the benefit of the doubt by accepting that it wanted democracy in Afghanistan. But was this the real reason for its intervention? Wasn’t 9/11 the greater trigger for the response? Indeed, isn’t Pakistan a more worrying breeding ground of terrorism?
There is probably hope from one quarter, as Mukhopadhaya illustrated. A new, different thinking generation, who possess a modern outlook, has emerged in Afghanistan since 2001. Regardless of its strife, it is unlikely to barter away its freedom – for this is what a re-entry of the Taliban will mean.
Lastly, for the self-appointed stake-holders to leave an invaluable and well-meaning India – respected by the Afghan people – out of a resolution would be an expensive error.