M Nawaz Khan
THE current, hard line approach adopted by the Afghan government has little or no chance of success unless a comprehensive approach, including a political reconciliation process, is adopted. The prospects for a political settlement of Afghan conflict could be more promising if all stakeholders understand that military means could hardly make a big breakthrough. The obstacles in establishing a peace process are numerous such as contradicting terms for peace talks, insufficiency of political will, the competing interests of various parties, grave disagreement among major ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and unclear policies of the US and major powers in the region. Though these obstacles are major road blocks, yet achieving a successful but durable peace is the only option to the war-torn Afghanistan.
There is a combination of factors, some internal and other external, which are responsible for the current security landscape in Afghanistan. A few factors on the internal front include ineffective governance, fractious and polarised political system, rampant corruption at various levels of government institutions, etc. On the external front, these factors include competing interests of different stakeholders, shifting policies, use of Afghan soil by hostile intelligence agencies for their proxies, disruption of peace process, inattention to geopolitical realities, lack of proper planning and over-reliance on military power without necessary attention to the development of Afghanistan, civilian assistance plans and political reconciliation process.
The Afghan Taliban insurgency continues to haunt the country; the situation is further worsened after the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) chapter in Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups continue to be present in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Operation Zarb-i-Azb launched by the Pakistani Army was an endeavour to destroy miscreants’ operational baseline, in the process the remnants of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and other militant groups escaped and took refuge in Khost, Nuristan and Kunar regions of Afghanistan. The clustering of the TTP, al Qaeda, and militant groups, which have shown allegiance to the IS such as Jamaat-ul-Ahraar, East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and other radical organizations in these areas are of the same mind-set (extremist) aiming to use the area as a campground for creating instability in the region. These groups are being used as proxies by the hostile intelligence agencies, especially against Pakistan. The deteriorated security situation in Afghanistan opens a door for those militant groups that have escaped from their countries due to army operations as mentioned above.
Furthermore, the Afghan security situation keeps on worsening since all sides are simultaneously attempting to initiate peace talks from a position of strength. For instance, Kabul, Washington and Taliban are sticking to a zero-sum-game theory to get maximum out of peace talks. The US troops as the major combating force against Taliban have never de-intensified its military campaign, although the US has withdrawn major part of its forces from Afghanistan but still its residual forces are actively engaged against the Afghan Taliban. Kabul has engaged in an unclear-game in calling for peace talks on the one hand and expanding its military campaign on the other hand. The same tactics are employed by Taliban in terms of increasing the intensity of their insurgency against the Afghan government resulting into civilian-military casualties. Thus “offensive for talk” mindset in Washington, Kabul or Taliban would intensify rather than alleviate the situation on-ground in Afghanistan.
Undoubtedly, the priority in Afghanistan is the initiation of a reconciliation process at the heart of which lies a structured and facilitated dialogue between the main parties. There is a powerful rationale for exploring the possibilities of a political reconciliation because Afghanistan’s conflict is escalating and government forces are suffering losses. Despite the challenges mentioned above, there are opportunities to improve the prospects for political reconciliation such as convergence of interests for stability, Afghan forces’ major weaknesses in offensive capability, Taliban’s inability to maintain their hold in provincial capitals or strategically located urban districts, presence of a peace agreement between Hezb-i-Islami party and the Afghan government, deteriorated security situation in the country, economic and domestic challenges, political instability and changing regional dynamics. These all open up real possibilities for an Afghan-led peace process. One more step, which may bring peace to Afghanistan, is the creation of a ‘peace lobby’. Not a single of these exist at the moment in Afghanistan because everyone is benefitting from the war. Thus, bringing peace in Afghanistan is of immense importance because it has both direct and indirect repercussions for peace in Pakistan and the region.
—The writer works at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.