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Karzai in Washington

As I write this on Tuesday morning the drama of the ‘long march’ of the Tehrik Minhaj-ul-Quran dominates the air waves.

Whatever its outcome we must recognise that it reflects the willingness of ‘friends’ outside the country to use whatever tool is available to create a counterpoint to the fundamentalist Islam that now seems to hold sway in our unfortunate country. Propagating this version of Islam was Gen Ziaul Haq’s doing but the tool was Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan was seen as only peripherally linked to the ‘long march’ it was more directly pertinent to the tragedy of the killing of the Hazaras in Quetta, the subsequent dharna, the granting of police powers to the Frontier Corps in Balochistan and the much delayed government decision to impose governor’s rule in the province. It is no secret that the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi draws upon Afghan refugees in Balochistan to reinforce its cadres or that its anti-Shia fervour feeds upon the contempt in which the Hazaras are held by the Pushtuns and other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Sectarian conflict in Pakistan was fuelled by the Iran-Iraq war in the ’80s but its present manifestation in Balochistan certainly owes its intensity and brutality to the Afghan situation and its fall-out on Pakistan.

Today, after daily attacks with improvised explosive devices, the daily killing of our armed forces personnel and the effect of this insecurity on our economy, we have recognised that the greatest threat to our security is internal. These challenges — including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and other extremist organisations — are largely a result of unwise policies on Afghanistan. It is to be hoped that we also recognise that they cannot be eliminated until the Afghan problem is settled.

Reconciliation in Afghanistan would be the first step towards eliminating the pernicious influence the country has had on our body politic and our economy.

From Pakistan’s perspective this is the lens through which the Karzai visit to Washington and its results must be viewed. What are these results?

First, according to the joint statement issued after the Karzai-Obama meeting the US welcomed Karzai’s “desire” to move the date for ending US combat operations forward to the spring of 2013 rather than the summer. This would mean “most unilateral US combat operations should end, with US forces pulling back their patrols from Afghan villages.” While not as categorical as Karzai would have liked this can be interpreted as meaning that there will be no US unilateral counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Second, “the presidents committed to placing Afghan detainees under the sovereignty and control of Afghanistan, while also ensuring that dangerous fighters remain off the battlefield. President Obama reaffirmed that the United States continues to provide assistance to the Afghan detention system.” This leaves some leeway for the US to continue the detention of those deemed dangerous but can be projected as meeting a key Karzai demand.

Third, projecting the foregoing as major victories, Karzai has moved on the question of immunity for any US forces that remain after 2014. In a press conference in Kabul after his return Karzai said that the decision on this issue would be made by a Loya Jirga. He had earlier said in a television interview before leaving Washington that he did not anticipate any problem securing such approval. In the joint press conference neither president was willing to indicate the size of the residual presence but it is more than likely that the number will be, as I had stated in an earlier article, between 3,000 and 6,000 and will focus almost entirely on Al Qaeda and its affiliates rather than on training Afghan forces.

Fourth, the two presidents “reaffirmed that Afghan-led peace and reconciliation is the surest way to end violence and ensure lasting stability of Afghanistan and the region … they stressed the importance of accelerating efforts, including by countries in the region that have a role to play in support of the Afghan peace process … (they) said that they would support an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the High Peace Council and the authorised representatives of the Taliban.”

In the joint press conference Obama’s opening statement said that “Reconciliation also requires constructive support from across the region, including Pakistan. We welcome recent steps that have been taken in that regard, and we’ll look for more tangible steps …” Karzai reinforced this, stating that “We also agreed on the steps that we should be taking in the peace process, which is of highest priority to Afghanistan. We agreed on allowing a Taliban office in Qatar — in Doha, where the Taliban will engage in direct talks with the representatives of the Afghan High Council for Peace, where we will be seeking the help of relevant regional countries, including Pakistan …”

Karzai’s categorical assignment of highest priority to reconciliation and his asking for Pakistan’s help for this is exactly what we want.

Whatever the misgivings about a residual American presence this, we must acknowledge, is the only way to ensure a measure of economic assistance from the West for an Afghan economy where at this time annual exports are $480m against imports more than 10 times this size, the price of flour is Rs300 a kilo, the price of cooking oil is Rs200 a kilo and where unemployment is estimated as more than 40 per cent. It is also perhaps the only way to ensure that an equitable reconciliation acceptable to the minority ethnic groups can be arrived at. Absent this assistance and absent reconciliation, the economic downturn and the political turmoil will bring a huge new influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan.

Apart from accepting the inevitability of continued US military presence and concomitantly accepting that the focus of the force will be on Al Qaeda and affiliates largely located in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Pakistan has also to accept that it will be required to play the key role in promoting reconciliation.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

Najmuddin A. Shaikh, "Karzai in Washington," Dawn. 2013-01-16.