No peace without inter-Afghan coordination

Notwithstanding the inability of the US to bring reforms in Afghanistan, it was the disunity among the Afghans and their aspirations to advance personal rather than national interests that flopped the country on every count. Inter-Afghan dialogue, for the future coordination, is among the four points agenda upon which the US and the Afghan Taliban are holding talks in Doha. Unless this seed of discord is sorted out, all other imperatives such as withdrawal of the US-led forces, disallowing Afghan soil from being used for terrorism and a complete cease-fire would elude the peace process, long before it bears fruit.

Since the Taliban have taken their seat at the negotiating table with the US to devise a plan to conclude the 18 years war in Afghanistan, there has been an emphasis on the inter-Afghan dialogue leading to inter-Afghan negotiation. An assessment from the past when the US pulled out of Afghanistan following the Soviet Union’s defeat and the trail of political history from the last 18 years’ of Afghan rule backed by the US suggest that the contestation among the varying ethnic groups in Afghanistan has the potential to undermine any peace process.

When the US left Afghanistan in 1989, which the former now confesses to being a hasty decision, the latter fell into an unending spiral of ethnic violence that eventually put the Taliban on the saddle. From 1992 to 1996, the Battle of Kabul, as the fight came to be known, the city was torn apart with incessant bombardment by the foreign-backed heavily armed forces. It was not until eyes were cast on a lone unified group, the Taliban, with a recipe to harness the withering Afghans to the reigns of Islamic Sharia that the fires and brimstones fell silent, only to regain strength when 9/11 once again brought the sirens of war back to the country, this time for a long haul. The Taliban were dethroned because of their refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden and the former’s insistence to follow a narrowly defined interpretation of Islamic Jurisprudence.

The irony has been that in spite of a group of civilized and developed countries’ presence in Afghanistan, there has been no marked improvement in the life and security of an ordinary Afghan. In fact, corruption and an economy burdened with drug money emanated from the loosely structured state institution with an extractive system of governance that, as the name implies, benefited the elite only. The Afghan ruling elite of the existing Unity government and before that the government under Hamid Karzai enjoyed influence and control limited only to their palaces and a few urban cities. The rest, almost 70 per cent of Afghanistan, has fallen into the hands of the Taliban.

That makes unity among the political rivals in Afghanistan extremely important.

It was in this backdrop that Pakistan hosted 50 leaders of different political leanings from Afghanistan for a one-day track II huddle at the hilly resort of Murree on June 23, 2019.

Though there was a long list of issues for discussion, one overriding message the conference intended to give was the undeniable composition of Afghanistan’s political landscape comprising representation from diverse ethnic groups. In attendance were Afghan leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hezb-e Islami political party, Karim Khalili of the Hizb-i Wahdat party, the representative of ethnic Hazaras, Atta Muhammad Noor, an ethnic Tajik from Jamiat-e-Islami, Fouzia Kofi, politician and women rights activists, Ismail Khan the warlord and many others. To exhibit Pakistan’s neutrality and to show that it has no favourites, neither the Taliban nor anyone from the government were invited to attend the conference.

The Lahore Process, as the conference was called, emphasized, besides other things, the importance of an Inter-Afghan coordination for any meaningful conclusion of the conflict in their country.

The Taliban do not recognise the Afghan government and have declined to engage with it. For the Taliban, it is the US that holds power, while the government is considered just a puppet to showcase civilian rule. This also explains the recent change of behaviour in the Afghan government towards Pakistan, manifested in the state visit of Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to Pakistan.

Defence analysts in Pakistan, like General (r) Amjad Shoaib, see Ghani getting increasingly irrelevant in Afghanistan’s power equation, which has strayed him from his usual rancorous attitude against Pakistan to a course where he sees it as a friend in need. Ghani made some hard talks about reviving trade and economic relations with Pakistan and also mentioned reducing the trust deficit between both the countries. Throughout his visit, he projected himself as the sovereign head of the state. General Shoaib argued that it was less of a visit to mend relations than putting forward the case of his being the man behind Afghanistan’s sustenance and progress.

“Pakistan has no leverage over the Taliban to force them to sit across Ghani and his government. The probability of Ghani losing the upcoming elections is high, provided the US does not interfere and give him a false win,” said Shoaib.

This brings us back to the importance of the inter-Afghan dialogue for which all the forces within Afghanistan have to shed their egocentrism towards their tribal or ethnic leanings. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, once floated the idea of putting a national government to facilitate settlement of the Afghan crisis, but Ghani dismissed the idea.

Since his last visit to Pakistan in 2014, Ashraf Ghani has been accusing Pakistan of interfering into the political affairs of his country. With this visit, Ghani has endorsed Pakistan’s critical role in any settlement between the insurgents and the Afghan government to end the 18-year-old war. Though US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ruled out taking any final decision without the Unity government presented, bringing the Taliban around to agreeing to this option would be a chore. Ghani knows that any settlement of the Afghan crises without his involvement would leave him and his government deprived of any political muscle in the landscape to emerge post-US-Taliban negotiation.

However, if Ghani is serious about bringing his country out of the four-decades of quagmire, and putting it on the path of progress, as he said during his visit to Pakistan, he should not mind losing a bit of political clout. An acid test, indeed.

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