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Future directions of Afghanistan

24 July, 2012

By Javid Hussain


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The prospect of the Nato military withdrawal from Afghanistan, as envisaged in the Chicago Declaration issued in May 2012, raises important questions about the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan in the context of the interplay of various Afghan forces, contending for power in the country and the evolving regional and global security environment. Whether the withdrawal of Isaf from Afghanistan would lead to the restoration of durable peace and stability, or whether it would merely fuel the fire of internal armed conflict in that war-torn country, would depend upon how the various Afghan political forces, the regional countries and major powers play their cards.

Afghanistan's recent history offers valuable lessons and guidance for the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. Perhaps, the most important lesson of the period following the Soviet withdrawal is that left to itself, Afghanistan is likely to relapse into an intense internal armed conflict after the departure of the Nato forces. This is basically what happened after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, particularly after the fall of the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime in April 1992.

The reality is that under the garb of political and ideological battles in Afghanistan, a tussle for power and supremacy between the Pakhtuns and non-Pakhtuns has been raging in the country for quite some time. During most of 1990s, the Taliban represented the Pakhtuns and the non-Pakhtuns were represented by the Northern Alliance. Even in the post-9/11 period, this tussle for power has remained an important factor in the evolution of the internal security situation in the country. If specific steps are not taken to resolve this tussle for power, the internal armed conflict in Afghanistan would be reignited after the Nato withdrawal thus plunging the country into a full-fledged civil war.

The experience of the 1990s and later events also clearly show that neither the Taliban/Pakhtuns, nor the Northern Alliance/non-Pakhtuns alone can sustain their rule over Afghanistan in conditions of peace and stability. The multi-ethnic character of Afghanistan demands a broad-based government with roots in the different politically significant communities in the country.

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear whether this lesson has been fully learnt by the various groups, particularly the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, contending for power in Afghanistan. It appears, however, from a recent interview of a senior Taliban commander conducted by Michael Semple, a former UN envoy to Kabul during the Taliban era, that at least some elements within the Taliban recognise that their group cannot achieve a total military victory in Afghanistan. This would be a welcome sign if it accurately reflected the evolving thinking within the Taliban. Obviously, the regional and major powers should encourage this line of thinking on the part of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. In short, the need of the hour is national reconciliation and a power-sharing formula primarily between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance for the establishment of a broad-based government, and the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Nato and Isaf forces.

Three countries through their policies will play the most important role in shaping the future course of events in Afghanistan. They are: the US, the current occupying power, and Afghanistan's two most important neighbours, that is, Pakistan and Iran. After the easy defeat of the Taliban government, the US policymakers failed to recognise the lesson of the Afghan history - that it was easier to topple the Taliban government than to impose a government of their choice on the Afghan people. The known Afghan hostility towards a foreign occupying power, the opening of a new front by the US through its invasion of Iraq which distracted its attention from Afghanistan, the alienation of Pakhtuns constituting almost half of the Afghan population because of the imposition of a Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul, and the disregard of the Afghan people's conservative cultural values guaranteed that the Taliban would stage a comeback.

This is precisely what happened in Afghanistan. The root cause of the threat posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, therefore, lies in the failure of US strategy to take into account the ground realities and to learn from the Afghan history, rather than any alleged support that the Afghan Taliban or Pakhtuns may be getting from their brethren in Pakistan's tribal areas. The US would be well advised, therefore, to focus its efforts on a counterterrorism strategy, that is, on defeating Al-Qaeda which is well within its grasp, rather than on the high-sounding objective of nation building in Washington's lights or even on counterinsurgency. Above all, it must distinguish between Al-Qaeda that is generally recognised as a terrorist organisation with an international agenda and the Taliban that despite its retrogressive character is essentially an Afghan group contending for power in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama since the assumption of power has stressed that the essential aim of the US is to defeat Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, this objective has not been adequately reflected in the US operational strategy in Afghanistan where the US has in practice continued to treat the Afghan Taliban simply as terrorists. Over the past year and a half, however, there has been some recognition on the part of the US policymakers of the need to include the Taliban in an intra-Afghan dialogue for national reconciliation. The attempts earlier this year to initiate formal talks with the Taliban in Qatar failed to take off because the US reneged on its commitment to release some Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo. It seems, however, from the participation of a Taliban representative in a peace meeting in Japan last month and the recent statements by the Head of the Afghan High Peace Council that behind-the-scene efforts are continuing for persuading the Taliban to join an intra-Afghan dialogue.

Iran like Pakistan has close cultural, religious, economic and historical links with Afghanistan, besides having a long contiguous border with that country. The competition for influence in Afghanistan between Pakistan and Iran after the fall of the Najibullah regime in April 1992 prolonged the Afghan civil war till the situation underwent a radical change after 9/11. It also had the undesirable effect of allowing Al-Qaeda to entrench itself in Afghanistan, leading to the US invasion of the country. In retrospect, both Pakistan and Iran would have been better off if they had refrained from taking sides in the internal armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Hopefully, both Iran and Pakistan have drawn an appropriate lesson from their unhappy experience of the 1990s. Pakistan publicly has called for an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan through national reconciliation. Iran also, having burnt its fingers during the 1990s and apprehensive of the US military presence in Afghanistan, is likely to pursue a more prudent approach than what it did earlier in the pre-9/11 period. It is, however, necessary for both Pakistan and Iran to reassure each other about their long-term intentions concerning Afghanistan to overcome any lingering mistrust between them and to avoid the revival of the uncalled for competition for influence in the country. In particular, both Iran and Pakistan must keep their respective security agencies under check so that their misplaced enthusiasm in protecting their respective narrowly-defined national interests does not degenerate into a clash of their Afghan policies as it did during the 1990s.


The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.
Email: javid.husain@gmail.com

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