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March 7, 2018

Ghani’s olive branch


March 7, 2018

As Afghanistan continues to be wracked by violence, with high-security zones in Kabul hit several times in the last few weeks by the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani surprised everyone by extending an olive branch to the Taliban last week.

His bold offer to hold talks with the insurgent group and recognise it as a legitimate political stakeholder and also promise a constitutional review, suggest a ceasefire and lift sanctions imposed on its leaders, represents a significant development – a first of its kind in the 17-year long war. Ghani’s dialogue offer comes at a time when the Taliban have reached out to Washington twice to negotiate a settlement, and have vowed to protect the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) gas pipeline project, terming it a project of national significance.

The Afghan president also promised a new beginning with Pakistan by, what he termed as, forgetting the past and moving on. This happens to be the first clear statement-of-intent issued vis-a-vis Pakistan after scores of peace overtures made by Islamabad went unanswered. Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership had both reached out to Kabul in an apparent attempt to wean it away from an alliance with India.

Kabul’s peacemaking offer to Islamabad has to be contextualised to understand its significance and symbolism. After Ghani replaced bellicose Karzai in the presidential palace, Pakistan saw an opportunity to begin afresh with the national unity government led by President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The need for a fresh engagement with the new Afghan leadership was certainly one of merit, particularly after the disastrous years of the Karzai presidency. Those years were marred by a joint Indo-Afghan juggernaut that sought to undermine Pakistan’s international credibility by portraying Islamabad as the ‘epicentre of terrorism’ and the ‘mother of all problems’ with reference to Occupied Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Squeezed by the narrowing space on its western and eastern fronts, a full-fledged insurgency raging across Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the troubles in Balochistan, Pakistan faced unprecedented threats to its internal stability and peace. The geo-strategic milieu was further vitiated by Washington’s incessant demands to ‘do more’. This explains why Pakistan went overboard and over-committed to Kabul to deliver on an ambitious plan it did not have full control on. Although the intentions of Pakistan’s civil and military leadership cannot be doubted, the fact remained that there were many intricate details to the jigsaw puzzle and many players who vied to gain more influence at the expense of each other.

What added to the complex mix of factors were Pakistan’s limitations in exercising its influence on the Taliban. It was foolhardiness on the part of Kabul and Washington to expect Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table without any conditions. The insurgency that Islamabad had helped create in the 1990s had undergone a major transformation that was triggered by the emergence of a new leadership, war experience and the prospects of new power dynamics playing out in Kabul.

While the Murree peace parleys did mark the beginning of the stalled peace process, the journey was long and hard and dotted with many hiccups and unpredictability. The participating stakeholders were found to be equally clueless and unprepared to deal with a potential spoiler. Therefore, when the news of Mullah Omar’s death broke out, it was the end for the ambitious peacemaking attempt. The feelings of betrayal and deceit resulted in the Ghani government and Taliban hardening their stances, with the Taliban feeling they were stabbed in the back. It ended the brief honeymoon between Islamabad and Kabul with the latter gradually cosying up to India.

At long last, the hard realities of the Afghan war have again brought the warring parties together to develop a fresh understanding of the situation. The longest running war in recent history that has kept even the world’s mightiest military, economic and diplomatic machine from achieving its objective of nation-building, has served as a reminder of the limitations of even a superpower. America’s deviation from its mission statement of ‘nation-building’ to ‘eliminating the Taliban’, and reducing the latter’s fighting capability and bringing them to the negotiation table, represents a massive failure of the military and political strategies. The failure of the mighty military campaigns in Afghanistan needs to be taught as a case study in military academies around the world. The Afghan war teaches important lessons about how not to impose external solutions on internal problems.

The dialogue offer, subject to acceptance by the Taliban, is only a hazy attempt as the broad contours still remain unclear. Historically, the Taliban have never accepted the Afghan government as a legitimate body and instead described it as an extension of its western patrons. Hence, they have always preferred to engage directly with Washington. The Doha peace initiative failed to take off after the then president, Hamid Karzai, vehemently objected to it as being dismissive of his authority and promoting the Taliban as an alternate government.

Thus, a meaningful dialogue should stem from a deep-rooted conviction of all the parties that neither a military solution nor use of violence will resolve the crisis in Afghanistan. For the peace process to be productive and result-oriented, it has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. The outside world must resist the temptation of setting the rules of the game for the Afghans in an effort to curry favour with one faction or the other. This approach of using Afghan turf to fight rivals has been hugely counter-productive and has only muddied the Afghan waters.

At best, regional countries that have a legitimate stake in a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan should evolve a joint mechanism to push all sides towards a fruitful discussion. The American strategy of giving India, a neighbour that does not share any borders with Afghanistan, a prominent role on the table defies logic and common political sense.

A broad regional approach, with aims and objectives clearly and unanimously defined, should be pursued to facilitate the dialogue process. The regional countries should know that persistence of violence in the war-torn country is going to be damaging for their long-term interests. The Taliban must also review their stance vis-a-vis the Afghan government as the policy of not entering into any dialogue with Kabul has outlived its usefulness. Following a spurt in violence, the Trump administration announced inflicting heavy punishment on the Taliban and shutting down all channels of communications with them. The insurgents should know that despite their resilience, they have failed to force out a solution of their choice from both Washington and Kabul.

In the present set of circumstances, more of the same will work to the Taliban’s disadvantage as the deadly Isis tries to fill the vacuum and enhance its terrorist profile. Thus, giving peace a serious chance appears to be the only sane course of action. A meaningful dialogue among the competing parties is the only way forward. The parties have to determine whether they want to bring this senseless war to an end or pay a heavier price.

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