The unity government in Kabul is gradually moving into action on various fronts. But the most formidable challenge it faces is how to push the national reconciliation process because both Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah are caught between two conflicting narratives on the issue of talks with the Taliban.
Lets first recap who says what. Mullah Omar continues to peddle the idea of an Afghan-inclusive government based on Islamic principles. Dr Abdullah Abdullah insists that most Afghans are against Taliban ideology and “we are not prepared to compromise to please a small number of militants.”
The civil society initiative Afghan People’s Dialogue on Peace talks of “armed opposition, illegal militias” and urges “disarmament of illegal groups.”
President Ashraf Ghani has been requesting the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami to enter political talks but says, “We didn’t invite Mullah Omar. He’s on the terrorist watch list.”
It is a sort of a divided house.
As far the external players, the United States, Pakistan, and China are concerned, they have been supportive of political reconciliation through talks with the Taliban.
(Pakistan’s) Advisor on national security and foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, in a policy statement at the Council on Foreign Relations (which he reiterated at an Islamabad seminar) declared that “Reconciliation is an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process, but if they want our help, whatever help we can give, we will. But it is an Afghan initiative how they want to approach this task and what exactly do they want us to.”
Indian and Russian positions are more in synch with that of Abdullah Abdullah who rejects talks with the Taliban.
In this context, a Russia Today commentary by Rajeev Sharma on post-2014 challenges to India and Russia is quite instructive and perhaps reflects what Indian and Russian policy establishments think.
“Thus the Indian and Russian strategic interests coalesce over the post 2014 Afghanistan. Both of them want to see the back of Taliban in the Afghanistan theater. Both would be keen to ensure that Taliban is not allowed to have a field day in Afghanistan like it did in the past. It is in this context that the Indo-Russian deal of sending supplies of arms and armaments to Afghanistan assumes importance.”
Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, during his meeting with former president Karzai, expressed the hope that “instead of weapons, Afghanistan will see economic development. China is interested to boost its role in Afghanistan.”
What do these conflicting positions mean for the peace and reconciliation process and what kind of challenge do they represent for major stakeholders?
The ground situation hardly portends well for them because Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan People’s Dialogue on Peace, India and Russia on the one hand, and Dr Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan, USA, and China, on the other, find themselves at variance. The former are ideologically averse to the Taliban and thus practically rule out dialogue. The latter acknowledge the Taliban as interlocutors despite describing them as armed/political opposition.
Firstly, this complicated inter-play of interests requires a monumental effort by Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah to first reconcile their positions on how to define the Taliban and the mechanism to approach what the Americans used to call insurgents. That means generating consensus at home first.
Secondly, The unity government will have to make sure that external spoilers don’t preempt its reconciliation efforts, as suggested by the Afghan People’s Dialogue on Peaceinitiative. They shall have to guard against other states’ influencing the reconciliation efforts by peddling their interests.
In fact this report provides a practical and logical roadmap for future, and urges the Afghan leadership to neutralize spoilers of peace by vetting mechanisms based on objective criteria for both ex-armed combatants and leaders of the peace and reconciliation process.
The group also called for ensuring wider participation in the peace and reconciliation process, which is central to its success.
The initiative also urged the government to do more to secure Afghanistan’s borders and prevent the infiltration of armed groups into Afghanistan. Afghans reiterated their call for neighboring governments to cease backing armed groups through the provision of material support (weapons and/or safe havens).
The third most important challenge comes from the immediate neighborhood i.e. unequivocal assurance by all neighbors not to interfere in the peace process, not to favor any party, and not to allow use of their territory for any Afghan combatant.
The foremost suspect in this case has been Pakistan. Now, after suffering the consequences of its direct and indirect involvement in and with Afghanistan and some its stakeholders, Islamabad and Rawalpindi seem to be gradually divorcing the path they treaded for decades.
During his talk at the CFR, Sartaj Aziz candidly stated that “the Afghan Taliban coming to power by force in Afghanistan is not in our security interests.”
He then underlined: “but that requires that other countries in the region also follow the same policy. We should not start fighting proxy wars in Afghanistan, India, Iran, other Central Asian countries, they all should follow a policy of non-interference… Once the Afghans sort their own problems, we can all compete in trade, investment, and reconstruction.”
Pakistan, according to Sartaj Aziz, has also stopped distinguishing between good and bad Taliban. He undertook that his country would not allow Pakistani territory to be used against Afghanistan or any other country.
These statements bring into play the question of credibility. Do Afghans and others believe in Pakistan’s new stated policy?
Most of them don’t. But one tends to argue that neighboring states cannot live in perennial state of mutual suspicion, and somehow at some stage they need to create grounds for reviving mutual trust.
For this, better border management and more regulated flow of people on both sides of the border could perhaps be one of the tangible steps both countries can take.
Pakistan, we understand, is digging trenches on its territory – some 500km, nearly 600 metres off the Durand Line – at critical points. Some sections have been fenced, probably in the Waziristan region. Here, close coordination between the two countries could possibly help improve the illegal cross-border movement.
Pakistan has also been demanding bio-metrics at regular border crossings, a demand supported by the US and Canadian and several other governments but rejected by the Karzai government.
Fourth, Pakistan shall have to take credible demonstrable actions to deny Afghan Taliban safe havens, and also work to rub off the perception that it uses some Taliban factions for leverage in the national reconciliation process as well as for geo-political objectives.
This however will also require restoration of trilateral trust, and an end to blame and double games by everyone. It takes at least two to tango – and the Afghan leaders also have to be cognizant of this reality.
Lastly, China’s increasing interest in Afghanistan and its peace process must be welcome. It can serve as a mitigating/neutralizing factor in the acrimonious Pak-Afghan-India relationship and thus try to neutralize the impact of geo-politics that these three countries are involved in.
In this context, a lesson that Pakistan and China should learn from the US-led intervention in Afghanistan is that a security-centric, contractor-driven, selective approach instead of an-inclusive approach in conflict management and conflict resolution will never entail success. Unholy, short-term, tactical alliances with murderers or criminals in the name of security are extremely damaging in the long term. What is needed is an equal-handed, long-term, all-inclusive engagement with all stakeholders and only such an approach can help Afghanistan successfully handle its national reconciliation efforts.
Only bilateral and multilateral trust and sincerity will help promote the national reconciliation. That is why, while others support Afghanistan diplomatically, economically and politically, let Afghans decide their fate among themselves.
Abridged from a paper that Imtiaz Gul read at a Pakistan-China-Afghanistan Trilateral Conference in Islamabad