AS is his wont, President Trump, ‘in a series of tweets’, has reportedly called off projected ‘secret meetings’ envisaged with the Taliban and the Kabul government, leaving one and all as mystified as ever! President Trump and his mysterious ways should under no circumstances be taken lightly. In the present instance too, he has lived up to his twitter reputation of leaving an already stunned audience more than ever dumb-founded. To use President Trump’s own words from the notorious tweets, “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and separately the President of Afghanistan were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great (sic) soldiers and eleven other people”. There you have it in a nutshell, as they say. The Afghan Peace Process may, as a consequence, be relegated back to square one, as they say.
The trouble with news trickling out in this fashion is that it always gives out mixed signals. One thing is clear, though. Major stake-holders have for quite some time past grudgingly acknowledged the fact that a closer study of history should have brought home to them before they enthusiastically embarked on their Afghan adventure: that no invading force has ever managed to subjugate the fierce and proud Afghan people. It is not territory that is of significance per se; it is the people that inhabit it that make all the difference.
Let us take a cursory look at the recent history of the happenings in the troubled milieu of that historic land after the Soviet withdrawal. History is witness that the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan hardly fared any better than the earlier colonial expeditionary forces. The United States could perhaps be excused for having nursed the illusion that its awesome new and untested lethal weaponry would bring the ragged and comparatively lightly armed Afghan resistance to its knees. What it had failed to take into account was the indomitable will and raw courage of the Afghan people. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2011, the departing commander of the British forces in Afghanistan had averred his belief that the Taliban “will never be defeated”: and the British ought to know! Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith was quoted as having told the Times of London that, in his opinion, a military victory over the Taliban was “neither feasible nor supportable”. He indicated that the only way forward was to find a political solution. The head of the French military force General Jean-Louis Georgelin – according to AFP reporting from Paris – had backed the senior British military officer’s view that the war in Afghanistan was un-winnable. General Georgelin had asserted that all initiatives aimed at encouraging reconciliation among Afghans “are good and should be encouraged”. To top it all, US General David Petraeus on his part had at that juncture confirmed that attempts were under way to open talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, General David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan, did not rule out reconciliation with ousted (now late) Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
At around the same time, the senior United Nations official in Kabul had called for a political settlement. The top U.N. envoy, Kai Eide, was reported to have said that the war “has to be won through political means”. He expressed the opinion that, “if you want to have relevant results you must speak to those who are relevant”. He added that, “in my view a policy of engagement is the right policy”. Admittedly, all the aforesaid represented mere straws in the wind. Prudence demanded that they not be accepted at face value and also not be allowed to become the basis of any hasty conclusions. The situation since has shown little signs of improvement though, and the time to ‘wait and see’ is long past.
Whichever way the events move, Pakistan, this time, simply cannot afford to be left high and dry. For far too long we have fallen into the abominable habit of missing the opportunities that fate lets fall in our lap. Missing the bus in the current scenario could well prove fatal. Should the Americans move swiftly and Pakistan does not do its sums right, there is imminent danger that the latter would be left holding the ‘war on terror’ baby, with all its horrible ramifications. President Trump’s tweet has further complicated an already murky situation.
Americans can and will secure their vital interests in the region in any settlement, but for Pakistan the chickens let loose by the infamous U-turn may come back home to roost. The Taliban, who once led an Afghan regime that was not unfriendly towards Pakistan, may not be that accommodative this time around. The Northern Alliance leopard cannot be expected to change its spots. What is more, several variables have since entered the equation thanks to the vested interests of neighbors. The result of the presidential election in Afghanistan resulted in moving the goal posts to Pakistan’s disadvantage. We have to be prepared to absorb the resulting shock-wave thus materialized. The advent of the Trump administration in the United States, with its shoot-from-the-hip tendencies, has further loaded the dice to Pakistan’s detriment. The portents could hardly be more daunting!
Whichever way the events move, Pakistan will continue to be on the receiving end! Here’s hoping that our Foreign Office whiz kids are au fait with the turn of events and are busy in drawing up the viable options. To this may be added the hope and prayer that, when presented with these options, the powers that be in this blessed land will have the gumption and foresight to make the optimum choice. If not, the Ship of the State may well be on its way to choppy and uncharted waters.
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.