President Karzai’s visit to Islamabad was intended primarily to seek Pakistan’s cooperation in getting the Afghan peace talks back on track but with a difference. The resistance must agree to hold negotiations with the Afghan government as their main interlocutors.
Other items on the agenda were the release of Afghan prisoners, trade ties, construction of a dam on the Kunar River etc. Another objective was to enable the Afghan leader to establish a working relationship with the new Pakistani leadership at a time when the exit of most foreign forces from Afghanistan looms.
Unfortunately, all such top-level interactions between the leaders from both countries tend to lose relevance when they confront the real and most fundamental issue that has continued to cause mayhem for more than a decade. Unable or unwilling to accept ground realities, both countries talk about the symptoms than how to fix them.
They accept the situation as it is and then seek solutions within a framework that is not credible. They either fail to or do not wish to confront a monumental challenge – the presence of the coalition forces. And here is the real dilemma .Unable to persuade the US or even to dare suggest complete withdrawal as a necessary prerequisite to peace in Afghanistan, leaders waste time on such peripheral issues as release of prisoners, facilitation of negotiations, preventing border incursions and symbolic gestures such as visits and pledges of cooperation etc.
The US and its puppet regime in Kabul have a unique concept of delivering peace to the war-shattered country. They want the system imposed on the country by the occupation forces not to unravel and, therefore, would like to ‘mainstream’ the resistance or the Taliban within the existing structures. According to the Pentagon/CIA perception, that would resolve the conundrum in the country.
All the Track-II interactions, the so-called Doha process, the unending engagements of US representatives and the leaders of the Afghan government with Pakistan or the Taliban are designed to accomplish one goal: to get the Afghan resistance to accept the government, parliament, constitution and become integrated with the state systems.
If the problem were so simple it would have been resolved long ago. Regrettably the Americans are not making their intentions clear with regard to their long-term goals in Afghanistan. They have declared umpteen times that they would leave behind a force that is capable of ‘defending’ the country. In other words the US would become a permanent guarantor of the ‘order and system’ that they have created. It would determine the course and direction Afghanistan takes for many years to come. All this is camouflaged by the hackneyed clichés so often projected in the media like ‘saving Afghanistan from the brutal Taliban’, ‘taking the country forward’ along democratic lines, ‘emancipating’ the population – within the parameters laid down by the US.
There lies the paradox: helping Afghanistan rebuild itself but inflicting on its people the pain of a never-ending war that has devoured more than 125,000 Afghans since the US occupation in late 2001.
The leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan have met dozens of times since 2002. But in all these interactions the talk has seldom been centred on what remains as the main hurdle to a return to stability. The Afghan position is simple to comprehend: the country is, for all practical purposes, under US occupation and its government owes its existence and survival to continued US military presence. The Kabul government and its many advisers, ministers etc are beneficiaries and, therefore supporters of the status quo.
Pakistan’s leaders are also overwhelmed by the US military prowess, coupled with the fact that Islamabad has become fatally accustomed to living under American patronage. How can such a country enunciate a policy that addresses the ‘root cause’ of and offers a way out of such a critical impasse?
There is thus no forward movement towards peace. Indeed the Americans, other than mainstreaming the Taliban, are not desperately seeking to engage the Taliban in negotiations. The Doha talks were also undertaken in order to convey an impression that the US is seriously trying to reach an accord with the resistance. They were also intended to ascertain the ‘Taliban reality’ – their views, plans and the rules governing the movement. Another important consideration was the possible disunity in the ranks of the movement prompted by conflicting views on negotiations.
The issue of the release of prisoners was raised by the Afghan side. Of what practical use would the release of prisoners be to any side? The Taliban have declared many times in the past that anyone from their movement detained by either the Afghan or Pakistani governments would sever his links with the Taliban. Any talks held with such former Taliban activists or leaders carry no value whatsoever with the Taliban.
In this context, even if Mullah Baradar is released and ‘handed over’ to the Afghan authorities he would not be of any help either to Kabul or the movement. The Taliban have already expelled him.
The only significant outcome of the visit other than establishing rapport between the leaders was the agreement to consider construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Kunar River. The river offers many sites for dam construction which could help generate power. These projects are certainly worth pursuing. But the two countries must also finally conclude a water-sharing agreement that would not only delineate the share of water in the Kabul River system but also create joint bodies which would ensure prevention of waste, seepage, implement conservation measures and put in place better irrigation management practices so that the depleting water resources are utilised to their best advantage.
One should not think that the exit of most coalition forces by the end of 2014 would usher in an era of peace and stability. The real battle may only be waiting to begin. The US will certainly leave behind about 10,000 troops in addition to 5-6,000 being contributed by the other Nato partners. Fighting will continue and may even intensify. The attrition rate from the army – now about 20 percent – may jump to dangerous levels like 40 to 45 percent. That would certainly mean the beginning of the disintegration of the Afghan security forces set up with such dedication by the Americans and the Germans.
Confronted with such daunting challenges, what options Pakistan should pursue? The best course is to help initiate an intra-Afghan dialogue that would try to achieve a consensus on the shape of government, its constitution, the manner of election, rights of ethnic minorities etc. If such a consensus is forthcoming it would lay the foundation of a sustainable Afghan government system that could deliver peace, progress and development. That should be Pakistan’s objective.
It must also be understood that whereas the present Afghan institutions are sacrosanct, saving Afghanistan is more crucial. The goal, therefore, must be to take stock of the ground realities and devise a system that corresponds to the aspirations of the people – one that makes the country truly independent and does not need external props for its survival.
Pakistan must understand that the long-term US military presence next door would pose a constant threat to its nuclear development programme. It could also strain its ties with two important neighbours – China and Iran.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: email@example.comRustam Shah Mohmand, "Karzai and Afghan reality," The News. 2013-08-29.
Keywords: Political science , Government-Afghanistan , Armed forces , Government-Pakistan , International issues , Policy-Pakistan , Military-United States , Political issues , Democracy , Taliban , Mullah Baradar , President Karzai , Afghanistan , Pakistan , Islamabad , United States , Kabul , CIA , NATO