October 13, 2010

Afghanistan's Only Road to Peace

Published by Ayaz Wazir in The News International:

History bears witness that the British made several attempts to subjugate Afghanistan at a time when the might of the British empire was at its zenith. Despite their prowess they were forced to abandon Afghanistan after several futile attempts. Then the Soviets tried their luck. The magnitude of the economic cost of the effort was so colossal that the fissures in the structure of the Soviet Union became chasms and the once great superpower lost a huge chunk of its own territory, becoming merely Russia in the process.

Now the Americans are in the arena and after the passage of nine years, during which period over 5000 bodybags were sent home and tens of thousands were wounded, are flailing to clutch at a face-saving exit strategy. Afghanistan, it is obvious, cannot be subjugated by using brutal force no matter how powerfully wielded that force might be. It has indeed rightly been said that Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires.

The war in Afghanistan has not only ruined that country but has badly affected its neighbours and the world at large. The overall security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated considerably. The year 2010 has been the deadliest since the occupation of the country by foreign forces. While the insurgency continues unabated, elections to the lower house were held last month, which is a step in the right direction. It can strengthen President Karzai provided those supporting peace efforts are elected to parliament. If those who prefer the status quo or oppose the peace process are elected, it will make Karzai's efforts much more difficult.

As far as the international partners in the war on terror are concerned, one can see the unease, particularly amongst the European countries, due to the public resentment against an "open-ended" military presence in Afghanistan.

The growing realisation that the war is not winnable militarily forces them to activate the tracks for reconciliation within Afghanistan. They seem to have realised that Pakistan's role in finding a peaceful solution to the problem is not only important but crucial.

Pakistan has suffered most of all – but what has it gained in return? Its losses in terms of men and material are far more than those of the US and NATO. Its economy is nosediving and is now dependant entirely on foreign help. Foreign investment has stopped and capital outflow is on the rise. Inflation is sky-high, corruption is rampant, institutions stand destroyed and accountability is a closed chapter. Relations with the neighbours are not as cordial and the trust deficit with the West is widening.

In his book 'Obama's Wars', Bob Woodward has quoted Mike McConnell, the former US national intelligence director as having said that Pakistan is a dishonest partner, unwilling or unable to stop elements of its intelligence service from giving clandestine aid, weapons and money to the Afghan Taliban. On the one hand the US lauds Pakistan for playing a vital role in the war on terror and on the other it accuses Pakistan of helping the Taliban.

The US says it wants to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans but at the same time it does not hesitate in using force to force opponents to agree to its terms and conditions. Washington needs to reconsider its policy options. It should avoid setting conditions on the future dispensation that is to emerge in that country and stop changing goal posts or having double standards - if it wants to attain peace in Afghanistan. The readers would recall that during the Taliban period the US insisted on the formation of a broad-based government but the same principle was thrown to the winds in the Bonn Accord when an extremely narrow-based government was installed in Kabul. Similarly while it castigates Pakistan for not carrying out a harsh military offensive against Haqqani elements, it has quietly opened up lines of communication with that faction, according to Guardian.

To ensure a successful beginning of negotiations between the Taliban and the government in Kabul the US and NATO leadership should take Pakistan and Iran into confidence before initiating the process. The two countries have actively pursued their respective interests in Afghanistan for obvious reasons. Their historical, cultural, religious and ethnic links with the people of Afghanistan cannot be overemphasised. It is thus very important that the two immediate neighbours of Afghanistan be taken on board. The US may have reservations over Iran's involvement but that is something it has to live with if it really wants a negotiated and lasting settlement of the Afghan problem and at the same time carve out an honourable exit for its troops from Afghanistan.

While the Pak-Iran role cannot be overemphasised, some role for India should not be dismissed altogether. We should bear in mind that it had not only supported the Northern Alliance when it was fighting against the Taliban but also invested 1.2 billion dollars in the country. In addition to that it has historically amiable relations with Afghanistan. Although Pakistan has genuinely strong reservations about Indian presence on its western border, we should not forget that it was a pro-India government in Afghanistan that assured us a safe western border and even offered our combat aircraft to land during the 1965 war with India. President Karzai, during a visit to Pakistan, is on record as having said that Afghanistan and Pakistan are like conjoined twins whereas India is just a friend. We should trust the Afghans and treat them with honour and dignity. The recent increase in drone attacks in the tribal areas or the NATO's helicopter assault at the border cannot cover up for US failures in Afghanistan.

The surge and reintegration policy is flawed and has little chance of success. If the Taliban were to lay down their arms and join the government, why would they be fighting for the past nine years? The failure of the Marjah operation in Helmand province followed by the unceremonious exit of Gen Stanley McChrystal has already spilled the beans. The US condition of keeping Mullah Omar or his close associates out of the peace process is unrealistic. How can they be excluded when they are still a very active force opposing the government in Kabul? The US should feel happy if Mullah Omar agrees to talk to President Karzai in the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Any agreement with any entity other then Mullah Omar will be an exercise in futility and will not bring about durable peace.

The US and its allies should, in close consultation with Pakistan and Iran, help bring the two warring sides to the negotiating table and then leave it to them alone to accommodate each other and find an acceptable solution to their problem. And when the Afghans agree on a future course of action then the neighbours and the US should extend full support to that dispensation. And once Afghanistan is in peace the whole region will be in peace and so will the world at large.

The writer is a former Ambassador hailing from the FATA.

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