Raashid Wali Janjua
TWO overwhelming impulses shape the present peace mosaic of Afghanistan. The first one is the US presidential election and the desire of President Trump to earn a few electoral brownie points before the presidential election. The second one is the war fatigue amongst Taliban after 19 years of continual bloodshed. The two above impulses pale into insignificance in front of the potential spoilers that threaten to derail the fragile peace. Those spoilers include the intra-Afghan differences on power sharing, the conflicting interests of the regional powers and the US strategic interests in keeping a residual presence in Afghanistan. The US interest in the Afghan peace process and complete US troops pull out might change after US presidential election in November. Though future crystal gazing is a difficult proposition yet one can hazard a guess about potential peace scenario after November. The scenario might follow the familiar trajectory of a peace agreement and its tenuous hold with sporadic acts of violence till November when President Trump wins an election. The intra-Afghan dialogue all this while fails to evolve a consensus on power sharing agreement and the peace parleys sputter on without a consensus. After election Trump loses the urge to further reduce the US troops’ presence on Afghan soil in deference to a few strategic US interests while the Taliban and Afghan government renew hostilities against each other.
So what are those strategic interests of USA? USA’s declared intent to stay in Afghanistan is the same as in 2001 when it invaded Afghanistan. Countering terrorism and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base of global terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda was the overt US aim for invading Afghanistan. The hidden aim as per some analysts is keeping a watchful eye over Chinese and Russian expansion in the region and containment of their influence in Central and South Asia. The US needs to examine whether 2400 lives and $900 billion in direct war and reconstruction costs was worth its strategic interests in the region. In view of above till the time the US strategic planners do not clear their strategic ambivalence the prospects of lasting peace in Afghanistan are suspect. The residual US presence in Afghanistan with Afghanistan as a US protectorate would not go well with countries like Iran, China and Russia, each one of which would like to back its proxies in a bid to erode US influence in Afghanistan. The regional economic connectivity initiatives like CASA 1000 and TAPI that promise to bind the region in an economic interdependence would also wither on the vine unless the regional countries like China and Russia do not buy into the concept.
Pakistan being a direct affectee of the Afghan conflict would welcome any peace plan that is based on resolution of structural issues underlying the conflict. Pakistan should welcome a positive peace ie a peace based on eradication of the fundamental causes driving the conflict as opposed to a negative peace that is mere absence of war sans removal of its fundamental causes. Pakistan’s economy has suffered grievous shocks since 2001 due to this war on terror unleashed as a consequence of Afghan conflict. Having lost 18000 lives in anti-terrorism operations and suffered a cumulative loss of $126 billion to economy Pakistan would be the largest beneficiary of this peace process. If the intra-Afghan peace process does not succeed Afghanistan is likely to lapse into another round of civil war. For Pakistan Mulla Zaeef’s advice on the eve of Doha Accord about non interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs is portentous and should be properly heeded. Peace in Afghanistan would depend on USA’s hidden but real motives and the ability of Afghans to think above their parochial interests. For any peace agreement to hold the structural reasons of conflict would need to be addressed. These structural reasons include denial of genuine political and economic rights to different ethnic groups reflecting the true ethnic balance in Afghanistan and the presence of foreign occupying troops. Afghans would always regard the US residual presence in Afghanistan as a foreign interference in Afghan politics. Afghanistan being a war-torn economy would need munificent international assistance both for running the government and maintaining Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANSDF). Having spent $90 billion till now on ANSDF there is little that these forces have to show in terms of combat ability to counter Taliban in a renewed civil war.
For a lasting peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan needs to understand that a positive engagement not only with Taliban but Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups is de rigueur without interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The United States needs to understand that peace in real sense would not prevail unless the US addresses the underlying causes of the conflict and co-opts the important regional powers like China, Russia and Iran. For intra-Afghan dialogue to succeed a group of four regional countries ie China, Iran, Russia and Pakistan should act as a facilitative body keeping the peace talks on course for a final agreement on power sharing scheme. America needs to understand the importance of above arrangement and think about a neutral mediator under UN mandate to oversee the peace talks along with the four-nation regional group mentioned above. Sans above the Afghan peace voyage is susceptible to shallows and miseries.
— The writer, a Retired Brig, is a PhD scholar at NUST, Islamabad.
Raashid Wali Janjua