Akbar Jan Marwat
THE recent one-day visit to Kabul by Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi along with senior political and government officials can certainly be termed as a positive development. The run-up to the trip, was somewhat, marred by the Afghan accusations of cross border firing by Pakistani Security forces. The elusive Afghan peace process, for which Pakistan in blamed so freely: also received a terrible setback from the latest air strike on a mosque cum-Madrassa on April 2 in the Province of Kunduz. These air attacks on the Madrassa where the students were receiving their graduation certificates, killed more than 150 unarmed Madrassa students. The bungled air-strikes were said to be carried out by the helicopters of the Afghan Air-Force, which is being trained by the U.S. Forces. More about these bloody air strikes later.
The visit by the Pakistani PM, and his meetings with the Afghan President and its Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah produced conciliatory messages from both sides. The key to better relations between the two countries is, however, a stable region. This stability can only be achieved through an early end to the war in Afghanistan, via a political deal with Afghan Taliban. For Pakistan there is the additional core issue, of anti-Pakistan militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan being shut down. Thus a need for a synchronized and mutually beneficial action from both countries is imperative to get a serious dialogue going. Pakistan can definitely play a role in the intra-Afghan dialogue for peace, by nudging the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating process. The success of the peace process, will, however, also largely depend on the American attitude towards the conflict in Afghanistan. The looser rules of engagement that the Trump Administration has authorized for its troops may make the overtures towards peace very difficult in a fighting season.
No doubt deeper interaction between the Pak and Afghan governments can play a very important role in resolution of the Afghan conflict. But the change in the US policy in the war, towards more aggressive air attacks against the Taliban and looser rules of engagements authorised for its troops will also determine the outcome of the peace process. To comprehensively illustrate, the counter-productive nature of excessive and indiscriminate force, it would be instructive to briefly analyse the air strikes on a Mosque-cum-Madarassa in the Kunduz Province on April 2, 2018. As briefly eluded to in the beginning of the article, air strikes by Afghan Air Force on a Madrasa in Kunduz took place on April 2, when the students of the Madrasa were observing their dastarbandi (turban tying) ceremony for graduating students who had memorized the Holy Quran.
As a result of the rockets rained on the madrasa, scores of young madrasa students wearing turbans and white clothes still clutching their certificates in their hands died. Pictures of these grizzly killings appeared on the social media. It is certain that there will be mourning and a call for revenge in Kundoz and beyond. According to eyewitness accounts of the incident, up to 1,000 people, including the family members, of the students were present when the bombing started. It has now become clear that fledgling Afghan Air Force, trained and equipped by the United States carried out the attack, suspecting some armed Taliban to be present in the vicinity. Afghan Air Force has stepped up air attacks in support of the hard-pressed Afghan ground forces fighting the Taliban. As a matter of fact, the Air Force has become the main stay of the war effort of both the US and Afghan forces against the Taliban who lack anti-aircraft guns and missiles. Air strikes are generally used to break the momentum of the Taliban fighters.
The strategy is in fact part of the new Trump military focused strategy for Afghanistan unveiled in August 2017. This new strategy is deemed cost-effective and aimed at minimizing Afghan troop casualties and breaking the stalemate in the fighting. Fully realizing the damaging consequences of such strikes, the Afghan President Ghani, immediately formed a Commission to investigate the Kunduz incident. Before the matter could be investigated, the Afghan government came up with the position, that the Afghan Air Force tried to hit Taliban who had assembled and were hatching plans for future attacks. The question, however, remains that even if there were Taliban present, there could still be no justification for bombing a madrasa were unarmed non-combatant students studied and lived. The claim of Afghan Defence Ministry that there were no civilians present during the attack, was soon contradicted by the Spokesman of the Kunduz Governor, who claimed that a number of civilian were indeed killed and many more injured in these air strikes. The United Nations is said to have also started an inquiry. In conclusion it can safely be said that: in the coming summer fighting season, the Afghan government has to be very weary of letting incidents like the one in Kunduz take place again. Such attacks would not only contribute to the intensity of the battle, but also give rise to the feeling of revenge in the ranks of the Taliban. Such bungled and indiscriminate attacks by the Afghan and US Air Forces should cease immediately if peace talks with the Afghan Taliban are to be given a fair chance.
—The writer is author, senior journalist and entrepreneur based in Islamabad.