NEWS & VIEWS
AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani made an offer to the Taliban for talks without preconditions during his address in the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation meeting, which is aimed at finding negotiated settlement to the country’s lingering crisis. New measures for the peace and reconciliation efforts include a ceasefire, recognition of the Taliban as a political party, making efforts for trust-building process as well as holding free and fair elections. “If we did not have the confidence and assurance that a peaceful and stable future is within our grasp, we might have lost the will to forge ahead”, Ashraf Ghani said, adding that the Afghan government was ready for amendment in the country’s constitution. The new peace map included releasing Taliban prisoners and removing some Taliban leaders’ names from international sanction lists as well as opening an office for Taliban in Kabul or other Afghanistan cities.
Hours after the presidential address to a conference in Kabul, Afghan Ambassador to India Dr Shaida Abdali hailed the speech as a golden opportunity and an offer never made before. About India’s support since 2001, Abdali called New Delhi a special friend, as India has invested generously in building roads, dams and hospitals in the war-torn country. India feels that pipeline project carrying gas from Turkmenistan to India will see a major boost if the Taliban respond positively to President Ashraf’s bold peace initiative. Work on the Afghan section of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline got under way last week, which could bring 33 billion cubic feet of gas to the subcontinent for more than 30 years. After the project’s inauguration, Afghan Taliban, in a rare announcement, vowed to support and protect the pipeline in areas under its control, which is reflective of its understanding of the national interest.
Within months after his election as president, Ashraf Ghani had taken steps to soothe Pakistani concerns about Indian influence in Afghanistan. Relegating India to the periphery of his foreign policy, he had sent a group of army cadets to an academy in Pakistan instead of sending them to India, where Afghan soldiers were normally trained. At that time, he had suspended a request for Indian weapons made by his predecessor Hamid Karzai. But because of India’s influence on elements of former Northern Alliance and cadres of National Directorate of Security (NDS), President Ashraf Ghani started treading the beaten track. India had then viewed Mr. Ghani’s policy towards talks with the Taliban as a major shift from his predecessor Hamid Karzai on two counts: Ashraf Ghani saw a bigger role for Pakistan in mediating talks and his government was willing to speak to Taliban leaders without pre-conditions.
Of course, Pakistani military and civilian leaders had thrown all support behind President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to bring peace to his war-ravaged country. Afghan president had made that offer more than once before he visited New Delhi in 2015 and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And it was the first time they talked about Afghanistan and India’s future engagement, with specific concerns in New Delhi about Ashraf Ghani’s plan of reconciliation with the Taliban as well as his bonhomie with Pakistan. One would not know whether he has the backing of the US and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah; but he says that it is the decision of the unity government. The question is whether he will have the support of the US and Abdullah Abdullah? Perhaps, unity government is haunted by the ISIS who fighters are more ferocious as compared with the Taliban fighters.
In January 2015, after facing strong criticism over a intelligence-sharing deal between the NDS and ISI, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had demanded tough action from Pakistan against Taliban militants in a letter seeking greater anti-terrorism cooperation, He had asked Islamabad’s civilian and military leadership to condemn the Taliban’s annual spring offensive and reiterated Kabul’s longstanding demand of denying insurgents sanctuary in Pakistan’s territory. The letter also demanded that Pakistan place Taliban leaders in Quetta and Peshawar under house arrest and detain members of the Taliban-allied Haqqani network. Pakistan had already launched operation against terrorists of all hues and shades including remnants of Haqqani network. In the Zarb-i-Azb operation, Pakistan had acted without any discrimination, and infrastructure and networks of militants were demolished. So the question of any insurgents’ sanctuary in Pakistan does not arise. Afghanistan should realise that unless they address Pakistan’s concern and stop giving overriding consideration to India, peace will remain elusive in Afghanistan.
The problem is that Afghan government is so internally divided and there are many groups on Abdullah’s side, who are opposed to talks with the Taliban. Long War Journal (LWJ), a component of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD) think-tank, reported in September 2017: “Overall, LWJ has determined that 45 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are controlled or contested by the Taliban. LWJ assessment aligns closely with those of both the US military and the Taliban itself. The Taliban claims to control or contest 50 percent of the country’s 407 districts. The US military puts the estimate at 40 percent, which LWJ says is flawed. A BBC study and months of research across the country showed that the Taliban now control or threaten much more territory than when foreign combat troops left in 2014. The Afghan government has played down the report, saying it controls most areas.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.