Importance of Afghan peace for Pakistan

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By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

The Taliban-US agreement of Feb. 29, 2020 was reached in intense negotiations between Washington’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban. Baradar was earlier detained in Pakistan and released in October 2018 at the specific request of the Americans, who acknowledged this and other measures taken by Islamabad as major contributions to bringing about peace in a deeply divided Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s most experienced and seasoned diplomats led by Foreign Minister Qureshi, Special Representative for Afghanistan Ambassador Sadiq and Foreign Secretary Sohail Mehmood are working with the US, the Afghan government, Afghan civil society and the Taliban to move the peace process forward.

They have good reason for doing so: no other country would benefit more from Afghan peace than Pakistan. As the “Heart of Asia,” Afghanistan lets Pakistan and South Asia connect with Central Asia, bring to life the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) electricity transmission line, Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline (TAPI), and opens transit routes for Pakistani trucks to carry goods to Central Asia. From each of these, Afghanistan will, of course, derive royalties and equal opportunities for the use of the gas and electricity that will be part of its share.

Afghanistan has by US Geological Survey estimates $1 trillion worth of minerals including rare earth minerals (Afghanistan’s own estimates are $4 trillion). Pakistan is the logical country to assist in exploitation and then in refining and marketing the minerals and perhaps even combining with its own mineral resources to benefit from a larger scale of production. Exploiting the hydroelectricity and irrigation potential of the Kabul River is another area of a possible mutual benefit.

ISLAMABAD: US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalidzad along with US Ambassador to Pakistan (left) talking to Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on Afghanistan’s issue at GHQ Rawalpindi.

Even while Pakistan is completing the fencing of its border with Afghanistan, which will help curb the smuggling of Afghanistan’s timber and mineral resources, it is opening fresh routes by which Afghan-Pakistan trade can be conducted — of note are the new crossing points at Angor Adda and Kharlachi in addition to Chaman, Torkham and Ghulam Khan. These facilities will be further reinforced when the Gwadar-Chaman highway is completed, giving Afghanistan yet another route for its own trade and for offering transit facilities to Central Asia.

However, all this unfortunately lies in the future. At the moment, Afghanistan’s economic situation is dire — about 55 percent of its budget comes from foreign assistance — while almost the entire cost of the 230,000 members of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDS) is met by foreign donors. The personnel, with the exception of the 25,000 strong Commando Corps, is ill-trained and badly deployed with high rates of desertion and perhaps with a considerable rate of infiltration by the Taliban and more ominously by the Daesh.  
A principal source of employment and revenue in almost all Afghan provinces is the cultivation of poppy and production of methamphetamine. According to UN data, over 80 percent of global opium production in the past few years was in Afghanistan. Estimates suggest that $250 million of Taliban revenues are derived from taxing opium cultivation (USHR) and controlling trafficking. Afghan warlords in their own fiefdoms derive a similar amount, as do Afghan officials. As a result, a complex illicit network has built up and its one aim is to ensure that turbulence continues and allows it to flourish. Very strong governance by an honest government, and cooperation of neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, would be needed over many years to dismantle this network of vested interests.

By the time this article is published it will be more than five months since the Taliban-US agreement was signed and despite warnings and threats by the US the release of the 5,000 Taliban held by the government in return for the release of Afghan government soldiers has not been completed when the agreement called for it to be done in 10 days. Over 4,200 militants have been released and the government says that many have returned to the battlefield. It also says that there has been an increase rather than a decrease in the level of Taliban violence, to which Kabul has responded forcefully.

The Afghan government has also been highly critical of Pakistan, claiming for instance that the Taliban they captured were Pakistani nationals, or that Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad were working with the militant group. Despite Islamabad’s efforts and the new facilities it created for Afghanistan, attempts to hold Pakistan responsible for Afghan woes continue.

What should Pakistan do? As Afghan efforts to make Pakistan the scapegoat will not stop, the sensible course of action would be to set aside the allegations, as well as fears of Indian designs in the region, and focus on completing its border fencing and insulate itself from the protracted negotiations that may ultimately come about between Afghan civil society representatives and the Taliban.

( Ambassador Najmuddin A. Shaikh is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, and served as high commissioner to Canada, ambassador to Germany, US and Iran. He is a former member of the board of governors of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad and a founding member of the Karachi Council of Foreign Relations.)