Afghanistan continues to be a trainwreck in slow motion. While the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces fold before the Taliban, with almost ghoulish irony, the official handle of Afghanistan’s presidential palace @ARG_AFG on August 10 tweeted pictures of President Ashraf Ghani chairing a meeting of the National Procurement Commission and reviewing 48 procurement items.
This is of course akin to rearranging the deckchairs while Titanic is going down. Unsurprisingly, the tweet got scathing comments from Afghan journalists and other activists.
But while the violence in that country is an immediate existential problem for the Afghans — it’s instructive to go through the Twitter timelines of Afghans active on social media — it also deepens Pakistan’s dilemma. I have written about it before, but let me recap.
One, Pakistan’s position, since the Bonn Conference and subsequent series of agreements in December 2001, has been grounded in two arguments: there’s no military solution to the Afghanistan problem and Taliban must be part of the political process in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s position on both counts was ignored then, but Islamabad has remained consistent in this through all the ups and downs of the war in that country.
Two, it is from this position that Pakistan facilitated the US deal with the Taliban and it is from this position that it has been trying to convince the Taliban to make the intra-Afghan dialogue work and “return to Kabul through power-sharing arrangements that have international backing.”
Three, Pakistan’s insistence on this framework is owed to history, geography and ethnic linkages between Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun that live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Let me explain: historically, in any conflict east or west of this border, fighters have found tactical depth on the other side. Ethnic linkages and geography make this happen.
Much is made of Taliban fighters and their leaders being on Pakistan’s soil. This half truth is pushed primarily to blame Pakistan and conveniently eschews the fact that almost every Afghan leader that sits in Kabul either has properties in Pakistan (and Dubai) or has lived here. It’s the same for ANDSF troops, many of whom have lived in the border districts and even have Pakistani national ID cards; equally, Afghan leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths when they also refuse to accept the internationally-recognised border and demand easement rights for Afghans to travel to Pakistan for education, business and medical treatment.
Incidentally, the phenomenon of tactical depth is not just confined to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It’s the same with Tajik, Uzbek and Iranian borders with Afghanistan. During the 90s, where did Tajik fighters retreat to, were housed and got treated? Tajikistan. Ditto for Uzbeks. Where did (or would) Ismail Khan find sanctuary? Iran. None of this is speculative. These are empirical facts and they are rooted in history, geography and ethnic/linguistic affinities.
Four, Pakistan has to deal with an Afghan government that is increasingly delusional, out of sync with the situation unfolding in Afghanistan, isolated and unable to get its act together. It is also a government that, given its near-total incompetence, is increasingly resorting to blaming Pakistan for all that ails Afghanistan. For all practical purposes it cannot be partnered.
Five, the Taliban insurgent movement seems to believe, given its tactical victories on the ground, that it also has the strategic prize in its grasp. That is equally delusional. While Taliban leaders like Mullah Ghani Baradar have been assuring regional countries that they are committed to retaining their legitimacy and will not do anything that violates basic international norms, we have yet to see that translate into real peace dividends on the ground. The Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, was also quoted as saying that centralisation of power has never worked in Afghanistan and they (Taliban) will not go for a formula that hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to in the future.
Interestingly, this was also stated by Ahmed Massoud, the son of Ahmed Shah Massoud, in an interview to Atlantic Council’s Kamal Alam on August 9. The younger Massoud talked about how centralisation has led to mistrust, corruption, resource wastage, shoddy governance and disconnect between the people and the rulers etcetera. This is in line with many reports and analyses over the years, including those by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, US government’s leading oversight authority on Afghanistan reconstruction.
I recall my conversation with Dr Abdullah Abdullah in 2011 on the sidelines of the US-Islamic World Forum in Washington DC. While discussing mistakes by the US and its allies, Dr Abdullah said something which has stayed with me since. He said (words to that effect), the biggest problem is that we are ruling in a cocoon; we haven’t been able to reach out to the people. Ahmed Massoud’s interview also brings this out. Most educated Afghans (journalists and other activists), know this and even express it in more honest moments.
Pakistan’s dilemma is who to partner. A conference which was scheduled in Islamabad and to which Pakistan had invited important political figures, including from Ghani’s political opposition, had to be quietly shelved because Ghani objected to it. There’s Ghani (the rock) and there is the Taliban insurgent movement (the hard place). Neither is or can be controlled by Pakistan. Equally, a straight up Taliban victory is not in Pakistan’s interest.
What are the options?
First, a reactive approach will not get Pakistan anywhere. Just like I recommended a proactive counterterrorism approach vis-a-vis groups operating against Pakistan from Afghanistan, Islamabad also needs to take a proactive diplomatic approach.
Second, a proactive approach means informing the US, its allies and also the regional countries that the Ghani government is a stumbling block, not a facilitator, to any intra-Afghan peace deal. Islamabad is too cautious to take this approach, but frankly the time for applying band-aid to this problem is long over.
Third, Pakistan needs an equally bold approach with the Taliban leadership. If they are not prepared to come round to translating their tactical wins into a strategic win, i.e., agree to an inclusive power-sharing arrangement, the pressure needs to be increased on the pressure points available to Pakistan. As part of the Expanded Troika, Pakistan is already committed to not supporting “the establishment in Afghanistan of any government imposed by force, consistent with the Joint Statement of the March 18 Expanded Troika.”
As part of a more active approach, Pakistan needs to make clear to the Taliban that if they choose to continue on the present course, they will lose the diplomatic space with Pakistan, as also other regional countries.
Fourth, as a continuation of this approach, Pakistan should reach out to other stakeholders in Afghanistan and get them to work out a new framework of talks with the Taliban. If Ghani doesn’t bite, which is very likely, other political actors in Afghanistan need to sideline him. Choosing between peace and Ghani should not be a tough choice. Taliban have consistently rejected any peace deal with Ghani. Let’s test them on that. If they refuse to agree to a peace deal even sans Ghani, they will be exposed. In that case, Pakistan will have to treat them accordingly.
None of this will be easy. Critics might even say this is not going to work. Problem is, what’s being done is not working either. Worse, right now everyone is working in and through a demonstrably failed framework. It is better to try and get something halfway right than fail with precision, which is what is happening currently.
The writer is a commentator on security and foreign affairs. He tweets @ejazhaider