Abdullah Abdullah, the Harbinger of Peace in Afghanistan?

Abdullah Abdullah is more a ‘son of the soil’ than Ghani, who sooner or later will return to the US. It would also suit Afghanistan and the region if it had a rather independent government.

Posted on 09/28/20
By Ikram Sehgal | Via ViewsWeek
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during a meeting Islamabad on September 28. (Photo courtesy APP)

The total military expenditure in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 is $822bn, this includes the US Department of Defense, State Department, USAID and other government agencies.  The real costs might be much higher. The considerable human cost includes 2,300 US soldiers killed and 20,660 wounded, not counting those traumatised who cannot find their place in society again. According to Ghani since he became President in 2014 more than 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces and over 100000 civilians have been killed, not counting the casualties of the Taliban.

After Daud Shah toppled his cousin King Zahir Shah and declared himself the first President of the Afghan Republic in 1973, relations with Pakistan became tense.   To counter with this emerging threat on its western borders Pakistani President Z A Bhutto tasked Commander IGFC Brig (later Maj Gen) N K Babar. A number of Afghan students were given training by one of my childhood friends Maj (later Lt Col) Salman Ahmad of SSG in two camps in Pakistan in 1974, among them Ahmad Shah Masood. Alongwith Salman in the Kandahar region during the Afghan war was Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, now the Taliban’s political leader heading their delegation in the peace talks in Doha. Trained in the Indian Military Academy, he was commissioned in the Afghan Army.  Joining the Mujahidin during the 80s he was in their Military Committee set up by Salman (codename “Col Faizan”).  More than any other Pakistani serviceman in our history Salman has fought multiple times more battles for Pakistan in East Pakistan in 1971 and during the entire Afghan war against the Soviets.  He says among all the Afghans Stanikzai accompanied him most in military operations against the Soviets. Incidentally Salman took Sandy Gall making his famous BBC documentary, “Allah Against the Gunships”.

A distant dream for many years, peace is now within reach. In February 2020 the US reached a pragmatic agreement with the Taliban, while also signing a declaration with the government of Afghanistan to start an intra-Afghan peace process. Notwithstanding the structure of the peace agreement and its faultlines, without the help of Pakistan as a go-between this agreement would not have been reached. With its own stake in the civil war in Afghanistan Pakistan had also to learn its lesson. Pakistani politicians and military professionals have been putting their money and effort on the Pashtun horse in the race for changing the power balance has cost our country dearly. A flood of Afghan refugees created economic turmoil that has adversely affected our growth rate and other economic indicators. In addition, the militarization of our society fed by stolen US weaponry meant for Afghanistan took a new turn. Flourishing in Pakistani seminaries, “Jihadism” financed with external funds resulted in the rise of a Pakistani Taliban force as an off-spring of the Afghan movement. Instead of recognizing the danger that was brewing in the underdeveloped and unruled tribal areas Pakistani military and intelligence put their trust and money in the Pashtun component of the Taliban movement, thus alienating the Taajik and Uzbek elements of Afghan society.

To add to this a cruel and selfish newcomer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was sent into the war in the 1990s by Pakistani intelligence, Basically a Karuti from Paktia Province, Hekmatyar alienated Ahmad Shah Masood and others, at various times fighting both against and aligning himself with almost every other group in Afghanistan. He ordered frequent attacks on other rival factions to weaken them in order to improve his own position in the post-Soviet power vacuum. His internecine rivalry led to his arranging the arrest of Ahmad Shah Masood in Pakistan in 1976 on so-called spying charges. Masood and Hekmatyar once agreed to stage a takeover operation in the Panjshir valley—Hekmatyar at the last minute refused to engage his part of the offensive, leaving Masood open and vulnerable. Masood’s forces barely escaped with their lives.

India is not the friend Afghans would like to believe, Afghanistan only used them as a means to an end, a convenient platform for conducting a proxy war at someone else’s expense, first at Soviet Union’s cost and then the US, with Afghanistan taking the brunt of the death and destruction that ensued. Afghans cannot seem to perceive the ruling BJP’s hatred of muslims in India, incidentally most of whose ancestors came from Afghanistan.

The Pashtun-Tajik problem started in 1929 when Habibullah Kalakani, as Tajik leader who was a kingmaker and the power behind the Afghan throne whose advice was binding on the king, overthrew King Amanullah Khan because he would not scale back his reforms opening the Afghan society to western norms. Because of differences with Amanullah Khan, the long time C-in-C Nadir Shah  had earlier gone into exile.  From the border areas, now mostly comprising Pakistan, Nadir Shah created a Mehsud and Waziri tribal lashkar and defeated Habibullah Kalakani’s forces.  He then executed Kalakani and many members of his family by firing squad. Unfortunately the lashkar then went on a rampage north of Kabul in the Tajik area, pillaging and looting, they committed many atrocities.   The  blood feud has lasted nearly a 100 years.  It is time to heal the wounds of the past. With a mixed parentage of a Pashtun father and Tajik mother, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is best equipped to do this.

Our unwise policy  in Afghanistan during the 1990s allowing the US to use our ports, roads, air bases and other amenities added to our human and economic cost and alienated the Taliban also within Pakistan, Pakistan is still having to bear the residuals of this failed policy. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s remaining influence was still enough to help bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Just a week ago after another period of harsh negotiations, the peace talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government, there are severe doubts if the two sides can agree on anything – that much was immediately clear during the very first meeting. The severe attacks of Taliban groups at Afghan soldiers and security personnel only displays the continuing rift between the two. An additional difficulty is the fact that the anti-Taliban side is divided in itself; Both the first and the second presidential election – both severely marred – brought a close run for power between Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. While Ashraf Ghani returned to Afghanistan after 24 years in December 2001 after leaving his posts at the UN and World Bank to join the new Afghan government as the chief advisor to President Hamid Karzai on 1 February 2002.

Abdullah Abdullah was a senior member of the Northern Alliance working as a close adviser to Ahmad Shah Masood before 2001. After serving as the Foreign Minister for nearly five years he stood against President Karzai and Ashraf Ghani even twice (last time in 2019) and every time came second according to the official counting. Based on the doubts that the handling of the election and the vote counting were manipulated he rejected the official results and got himself has sworn in as separate president.

During the “Afghanistan Re-Connected” dialogue series organized during the 2007-2012 period by the prestigious US think tank EastWest Institute (EWI), I was designated as the EWI Director for Brussels and Berlin, I was privileged to have long conversations with both Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Both have tremendous grasp of both domestic and international issues, while Ghani tends to be abrasive at times Dr Abdullah was always more cool, suave and accommodating. On a flight back from Berlin to Dubai, Dr Abdullah was by coincidence sitting next to me.  When  asked why he did not constructively engage with Pakistan, his reply stumped me, “Even if we want to, will Pakistan talk to us?” When I approached the powers-that-be in Pakistan about Dr Abdullah Abdullah being far more pragmatic than other Afghans but seeming to have a genuine grievance with Pakistan that needed assuaging, I was given a “shut up” call!.

In the aftermath of the first several controversial days of peace negotiations Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is now visiting Pakistan. As a young doctor he served briefly in Pakistan in 1985-86. This belated visit gives us unique opportunity to rethink and perhaps rectify our former Afghan policy. Pakistan needs a peaceful Afghanistan, they are our neighbors and this fact won’t change at any time in future. As the connecting link to Central Asia and Russia. Afghanistan plays an important role in the water and energy policy of the region and without peace no progress in those domains is possible. CPEC (and its extension to Iran) makes Afghanistan a vital link to Central Asia. Most of the 2 million or so Afghans would go back home if there was peace and a chance for a better life, this would certainly ease our economic burden.

The peace between the Taliban and the US signals a rigorous withdrawal of US forces from Afghan soil in line with President Trump’s policy of ‘America first’. Not happy with the situation the US military would like to keep a foot in the Afghan door by leaving behind some troops. In the aftermath of US withdrawal, fighting might still go on.  We cannot afford the existing government structure in Afghanistan to collapse and return to a vacuum in governance, so a fair-sized contingent of US troops must remain for some time. Ashraf Ghani serves the US better than Abdullah Abdullah and that is why the vote counting came out in his favor. However, Abdullah Abdullah is more a ‘son of the soil’ than Ghani, who sooner or later will return to the US. It would also suit Afghanistan and the region if it had a rather independent government. In a growingly interconnected world the present peace process, with India attempting to sabotage it by all means possible, is not only in the interest of all the countries of the region but is certainly justified in our interest.

The Foreign Office (and more so the ISI) must be applauded for arranging this extremely important and tremendous breakthrough. As the possible harbinger for peace, welcome to Pakistan Dr. Abdullah Abdullah!

The writer is a defense and security analyst.

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