On visiting Kabul and interacting with Afghans, there is a palpable sense of ‘uncertainty and confusion’ – all around in the streets and power corridors of the capital.
The Afghans’ hope for peace and their faith in the National Unity Government to end the war somewhere in the near future seem to be fading fast. Amidst the high uncertainty and the hovering clouds of war, the desire for peace and stability is quite evident in the people one meets – from the media, academia, civil society and research organisations to politics and government.
But unlike its dwellers, the city of Kabul is deceptive. Its exterior carries little symptoms or symbols of the ongoing war or impending ethnic tensions or any fears of the uncertain tomorrows that are to come.
Kabul is as bustling as any major city in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world – with people and merchandise, roads and streets, bumper-to-bumper vehicular traffic, high-rise plazas and commercial centres.
However, once you start talking to the city’s disappointed dwellers, the city’s exterior turns out to be artificial. The Taliban militia closing in on the city from its traditional rural localities and the dreaded Daesh taking root in the north and south of Afghanistan have turned Kabul into a haunted place where proverbial dead men walk.
Arriving in Kabul after a year’s break as part of a Track-II initiative organised by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German think-tank, it seemed little has changed for the better. Any hope for peace and any confidence in the government to steer the country out of conflict seem to be diminishing.
The same day that we reached Kabul a survey report was released by a Kabul-based local think-tank, the Center for Strategic & Regional Studies (CSRS). The report showed that 68 percent of respondents believed that their government has no real interests in peace. This lack of interest on the part of the government is the major reason for the peace process not succeeding, say the respondents.
During our visit, we heard almost identical views by many people: that the Unity Government is weak, fragmented, fractured and unable to bring peace; that former warlords are reasserting themselves; and that corruption is institutionalised and endemic. The government is under pressure from all sides, including within, to find immediate solutions to the problems faced by the people and to reform the governance system that is riddled with corruption, divisions and ethnic issues.
The Kabul-based political analysts that we met believe that the rising pressure on the Ghani administration is due to a growing sense of responsibility among ordinary Afghans who are holding their own leadership largely responsible for the sustained conflict. Afghans are no longer joining every bandwagon nor are they shifting the blame on others, particularly their neighbours.
This growing sense of ownership of the conflict has also united the divided opposition, which has launched a joint campaign against the NUG; the opposition held a spectacular public gathering in Kandahar demanding immediate solutions to the prevailing uncertainty in the country.
A large number of parliamentarians have increased pressure on Ghani to convene the traditional Loya Jirga. The campaign for the Loya Jirga is led by former president Hamid Karzai with the argument that the current Unity Government is not according to the constitution and is not capable of meeting the needs of the public.
According to a recent interview given by Karzai, “Afghanistan has been entered into the era of ‘uncertainty which need[s] [the] traditional Loya Jirga to be held to pull out the country and its people from [the] ongoing heart-wrenching problems”.
Analysts believed that Ghani will resist convening the Loya Jirga till the end, keeping in view the growing opposition coupled with the failure of his administration to fulfil the promises made during his election campaign.
US-led Nato allies also back Ghani’s hesitation to call the Jirga, perhaps fearing that this traditional council of tribal elders might decide complete withdrawal of US-led Nato forces from Afghanistan. This is because former president Karzai is insisting that the Loya Jirga debate the new US strategy on Afghanistan, which has intensified the war and compromised peace and reconciliation efforts.
Another major confusion is about the role of Pakistan in Afghan affairs. Still seen as an enemy – due to the dreaded Haqqanis – Pakistan is the only hope for Afghans who want peace.“What we want from Pakistan is [for it] to change its policy vis a vis Afghanistan”, says Homayun Asefi, a senior political leader and scion of the royal family.
“We understand Pakistan’s genuine national security issues”, shares Mariam Safi, a researcher and social activist. “We want Pakistan to share [its] concerns candidly so we can sort [sic] out for interests of peace in region”. The same views were expressed by Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani at a dinner he hosted for the visiting Pakistani journalists.
Then comes Daesh – the most talked-about issue in Kabul – gradually replacing the threat perceptions earlier posed by Taliban. Though Ghani claims to have gained successes against Daesh in Afghanistan, experts say that out of a total of 34 provinces, 16 are dominated by the Middle Eastern militant outfit.
Previously, it was Karzai accusing the US financing Daesh, now other senior leaders and analysts have also joined in and are questioning the role of US-led Nato forces in dealing with terror network.
A former presidential candidate opined: “It [Daesh] will be further strengthened if we ma(k)e [an] agreement with [the] Taliban as those members of militia who want to continue fighting ...will join the group...”
Those in the know believe that after facing defeat, those TTP militants who escaped military operations ended up with Daesh. The network was further strengthened when a large number of disgruntled activists of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami also joined it.
So even if the Taliban are reconciled with, it is not necessary that the war in Afghanistan will end. This is why Afghans seem to be haunted by the fear of one terror network replacing the other.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.