Trump’s evolving Afghanistan

Iqbal Khan

WHILE everyone awaits what President Trump has in store for resolving the Afghan crisis, a flurry of diplomatic activity has begun for commencing follow-up actions as soon as Trumps utters the word Afghanistan. While everyone is hoping for the best from Trump, not hearing from him so far indicates that Afghanistan is a low priority item on its agenda. Candidate Trump had articulated the necessity of keeping around 100000 troops in Afghanistan. President Trump’s address to the US troops stationed in Kabul point towards continuation of same mindset. And these days he is demonstrating that he would implement his all campaign rhetoric, no matter how silly those might be. If that be so, then Afghanistan is poised to simmer during Trump Presidency as well. However, Pakistani policymakers feel that change in Washington could offer an opportunity to address some of the issues positively. Pakistan has the highest stakes in peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah has expressed hope that the United States would continue its support for the Afghan government after American President Donald Trump publicly spoke with US troops stationed in Afghanistan after his inauguration. “I want to congratulate the US president on behalf of myself, the Afghan government and the people of Afghanistan,” Abdullah said. Abdullah, interpreted Trump’s comments to the troops as a positive sign. “I watched the U.S. president’s message to their soldiers… and he announced his support for them, which is a good and graceful step and I am sure that cooperation will continue in all aspects.” A former cabinet member of the Afghan Taliban regime, Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim, has appealed to the Afghan government and the Taliban on January 24: “not to miss the chance of peace negotiations, as I foresee heavy fighting this year… The chances of holding a dialogue decrease with the rise in violence; therefore, it is necessary for all sides to the conflict to act now and take advantage of the lull in the fighting during winter.”
Mutasim is of the view that start of peace talks depends mainly on the Afghan government, and the Taliban could come up with a positive response if officials adopt a serious approach to the peace process. “The Afghan government should also involve influential personalities who have contacts with the Taliban rather than looking towards other countries,” the Taliban leader said. “Afghan rulers should have a mechanism and political will, in addition to taking some confidence-building measures, to encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table,” he added. Possibility of the political process to succeed was strong if the new American administration shifted its focus from using force to accommodating the peace process. Improved relations between the US and Russia could also have a positive impact on the peace efforts in Afghanistan.
Afghan Taliban have urged President Trump to review his predecessors’ policies towards Afghanistan, as the US and its allies policies had failed to achieve anything in the war in Afghanistan: “The people of Afghanistan … are hopeful that Trump and his cabinet will not follow the wrong policies of their predecessors and keep the US away from Afghanistan…If he follows in the footsteps of Obama and Bush, and continue illegal aggression in our country without reviewing US policies, then American troops will be facing more deaths under Trump. Earlier Obama had admitted in December that the situation in Afghanistan was “still tough”. In preparation of next spring offensive, Taliban chief, Mullah Hibtuallah, has changed most of the shadow governors. One of the objectives is to give tough time to government forces during the upcoming fighting season. Governors who did well during last year’s combat have been retained including thee governors of Helmand, Kunduz and Kabul.
At bilateral level, Pakistan is preparing for ‘tough talk’ with Afghanistan in coming weeks when Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa travels to Kabul. He is waiting for the ‘appropriate time’ for the visit. Army chief is expected to visit Kabul after President Trump announces its policy on the Afghanistan. Afghan president has stated that his country now wanted ‘serious talks’ with Pakistan on the future of ties between the two countries. Pakistan also wants ‘serious discussions’ with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s intention for serious and meaningful discussions was meant to sort out differences between the two countries. Army Chief would provide ‘compelling evidence’ of how some elements within the Afghan government are supporting terrorist groups that are launching attacks in Pakistan. He would also renew Pakistan’s commitment to support efforts aimed at ending lingering instability in Afghanistan.
At political level, the American and Afghan leadership are accustomed to blaming Pakistan for their own failures in Afghanistan. Mere rhetoric of blaming others is not likely to solve the problem. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai after returning from India has urged President Trump to take action against safe havens of terrorists in Pakistan. Like a true opportunist has turned his back on President Obama just few moments after he left White House and has declared his Afghan policy a failure. He rendered two point advice to Trump while speaking to The Sunday Guardian: “One, begin to help Afghanistan in reconstruction, in improvement of the economy of Afghanistan rather than wasting resources on military action…Secondly, on Pakistan, they must be very clear that a country that they call ally must become an ally and follow the same objectives. You cannot be allies and yet walk in two different directions…”
Despite an unending smear campaign launched by Afghan leadership against Pakistan, ostensibly to appease the Indians, Pakistan has always shown goodwill towards Afghan people. Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz while talking to EU Special Representative on Afghanistan Franz Michael Mellbin on January 23, reaffirmed Pakistan’s desire for meaningful dialogue with Afghan leadership on matters of bilateral relations. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are faced with common challenges. Given the geographical proximity, the two countries can effectively overcome most of these difficulties. Afghan leadership while ignoring ground realities is often seen accusing Pakistan of all wrong things happening on its own territory ignoring the fact that Pakistan cannot do the task which falls within the domain of Afghan government or NATO forces.
However, foul language against Pakistan by foreign installed political leadership cannot reduce warmth and affection that is found between the peoples of two countries. Afghan leadership should engage positively with Pakistan and find ways and means to revive the stalled peace process. Since the beginning of Afghan crisis, many countries and entities are undertaking efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan. Heart of Asia Conference and a multitude of other bilateral and multilateral initiatives are a manifestation in this regard. In all such efforts. Pakistan has sincerely contributed and will continue to play such role. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is crucial for regional peace and is in the interest of Pakistan; but peace and stability in Afghanistan may not be Trump’s priority.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
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