By Asif Durrani
Ashraf Ghani’s government is visibly upset over the proposed understanding between the US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban’s assurances that Afghan territory would not be available to Al-Qaida or ISIS. President Ghani has reportedly written a letter to President Trump pleading to review his decision of hasty drawdown. He has also appealed to the international community not to repeat mistakes of the past which culminated into a disaster for the world and Afghanistan.
President Ghani’s unease with the evolving situation is understandable. It must be embarrassing for him that as an elected President of Afghanistan he has been left out of crucial dialogue which would decide about the future of his country. Ironically, power game in Afghanistan has exposed many vulnerabilities of the country’s unstable politics which remains dependent on the goodwill of outsiders. This brings into question the sovereignty of a nation which has the proud history of being fiercely independent.
The outcome of the dialogue between Khalilzad and Taliban notwithstanding, a host of ground realties are shaping up the future contours of Afghan conundrum with serious implications for the country’s neighbours. First, it has become clear that the Americans have accepted the Taliban as fait accompli and deem it necessary to sign a truce agreement with the latter. Former US ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker describes American agreement of troop withdrawal as “surrender”.However, he is unable to answer President Trump’s crucial question as to what objectives did the US achieve in the past 18 years in Afghanistan after wasting one trillion dollars and losing 2400 American soldiers.
Second, and related to the first question, is the sad state of affairs with President Ashraf Ghani, who being the President of a sovereign state, is unable to offer assurances to the Americans that the Afghan territory would not be used by Al-Qaida or ISIS. That the US considered the Taliban capable of defending their territory and denying any space to the Al-Qaida and ISIS. Therefore, it should not be surprising if the US chose to negotiate withdrawal with the Taliban to save it from further embarrassment at the hands of a government which cannot defend itself or the country.
Third, it is ironic that President Ghani is pleading for the American presence in his country to save his government rather than future stability of the country. His score card shows a poor performance in terms of providing good governance or security to the people. Even now his team is in total disarray to chalk out a future strategy and provide a viable roadmap to salvage the country from future chaos. On the contrary, and much to the chagrin of many, Taliban are displaying confidence and holding assurances to the Americans of providinga stable government, secure borders, and no room for Al-Qaida or ISIS. They already have a case as they control almost 70% of the country which, for a businessman President Trump, makes sense to do business with.
It is being feared that the US is repeating the same mistake when it left the region soon after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Quite plausible, but the moot question is what did the US and its supported Afghan governments (both Karzai and Ghani) achieve in the country? A glimpse in the past 18 years would reveal an Afghanistan ruled by the warlords while drug barons have had the field day; nepotism and corruption has been the hallmark of governance with no accountability. Even the American government has been utterly frustrated over the issue of bad governance frequently expressed in its watchdog organisation Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)’s reports.
In fact, by withdrawing from Afghanistan, President Trump has by default thrown the ball into the regional countries’ court-Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia-to fend for the chaos. India, being in the vicinity, becomes a proxy stakeholder which can play a spoiler’s role unless a tacit understanding is reached with Pakistan to stabilise Afghanistan, and also initiate the bilateral stalled-talks. (Role of regional countries in bringing Pakistan and India to the negotiating table would be crucial in breaking the ice although such a possibility rests with the outcome of the Indian elections).
The coming days and weeks would be fraught with dangers of more bloodshed and chaos unless sanity prevails amongst the Afghan stakeholders and the regional countries eschew from playing favourites with various Afghan religious or ethnic factions. The regional countries, therefore, should make it clear to all and sundry in Afghanistan what they expect of the country. The forthcoming Moscow meeting should provide such an opportunity to all the participants to flag their apprehensions about the future dispensation.
First and foremost, the neutral status of Afghanistan in the region has to be ensured by the Afghan leadership and neighbours of Afghanistan. In return, the regional countries, especially the neighbours of Afghanistan, may facilitate Afghanistan becoming a transit hub for South and Central Asia as well as the Middle East.
Second, Afghanistan has to ensure effective measures against opium production in the country. In return, the regional countries and the international community may provide assistance in substitute crops, dairy and livestock development and horticulture. Similarly, Afghanistan’s capacity in the industrial sector has to be enhanced in order to make the country’s economy sustainable.
Third, while respecting the cultural ethos of Afghanistan, the future dispensation will have to ensure that people are not persecuted on the basis of their beliefs or attire. Taliban or anyone else cannot claim monopoly over religion; the element of insult and violence to implement Islamic edicts has to go without exception. Pakistan will have to strictly resist such tendencies creeping into its borders.
For Pakistan, it is important that future changes in Afghanistan do not impinge upon our security and stability. We must protect our way of life as a moderate and progressive Muslim society and shun extreme tendencies which have crept into our body politic during the past four decades. We have already suffered immensely due to brotherly Afghanistan; we allowed a free ride to the Afghan Mujahideen to roam around the country; opened the doors for unregulated Afghan refugees and looked the other way when drug barons made Pakistan a launching pad for their businesses. Our rulers of the time unscrupulously encouraged the Kalashnikov and Pajero culture, which encouraged corruption and bigotry in the country and shook the foundations of a peaceful and law-abiding society. Therefore, while churning out reams of wisdom about the possible dangers of precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, our analysts must forewarn the people of the forthcoming challenges we are likely to face when a new dispensation in Afghanistan takes over. The real challenge is still ahead. Our policy makers should not fall for temporary gains or take trees for the jungle.
(The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to UAE and Deputy High Commissioner to Britain))