A new era for Afghanistan
The new leaders in Kabul are changing key Karzai-time policies towards India, the US, Pakistan and the Taliban
The recent visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah to the US has rightfully attracted worldwide attention. Their visit has given rise to optimism in an otherwise uncertain atmosphere characterised by four decades of war, betrayal and suffering. Afghanistan is no longer an isolated country and, against all odds, Afghans have achieved far higher standards of living than they experienced under the Taliban regime. Despite incalculable human loses, liberal inflows of foreign financial and technical assistance have ensured the emergence of a more prosperous Afghanistan where girls in large numbers are going to school and thousands of Afghans are attending institutions of higher learning.
Defying apprehensions, Afghanistan achieved a peaceful political transition last year which brought together the major political and ethnic factions of Afghan society leading to the formation of the unity Government. One should have no doubt that various sorts of political arrangements would emerge before a final shape is given to the current state of affairs where Messrs Ghani and Abdullah are sharing power.
Apart from reprioritising some domestic policies, the foreign policy shifts are more visible and fundamental under the new leadership. For one, Afghanistan’s posture towards the US and Pakistan has undergone a sea change. The new leaders have been more cooperative with the United States than the Hamid Karzai regime. Mr Ghani has used every possible opportunity to express his immense gratefulness to the US. He has requested US President Barack Obama to keep about 10,000 troops and two military bases in Afghanistan. Questions, however, may arise here as to how long the US can accommodate the presence of its troops in Afghanistan.
President Ghani has also made sensitive noises in his public commentary on Pakistan. While strategic interests of Afghanistan are not identical to those of Pakistan, the large amount of overlap of socio-political networks among the two societies may provide opportunities for cooperation. Mr Ghani has toned down enmity and hatred towards Pakistan, as was witnessed during Karzai’s tenure. As a friendship gesture of far reaching strategic importance, Mr Ghani has sent some Afghan soldiers to be trained in Pakistan for the first time since the ouster of the Taliban. Under him, Afghanistan has pledged all possible cooperation to Pakistan’s security forces in fighting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and Pakistan has reciprocated with a firm commitment to thwart cross-border attacks. Pakistan has also promised to promote negotiations with the Taliban.
Reconciliation is the next stage of conflict settlement, and can not be imposed if it is to be of enduring value. Individuals will feel secure only if the society in which they live demonstrate a renewed sense of order and purpose. Though all stakeholders have subscribed to the notion of reconciliation in Afghanistan, not all the questions pertaining to reconciliation can be answered easily or convincingly. For example, it remains to be seen how the Taliban can be accommodated in the Afghan power structure. There have been unconfirmed reports of Mr Ghani offering ministerial positions or governorships to a select group of Taliban leaders.
If the Taliban decides to accept this offer, how will it be operationalised? The intolerant practices of the Taliban era have not yet become a faint memory of a distant, violent past. Afghans are yet to become convinced that the liberal principle of freedom of religion should be the bottom line of their democratic state regarding religious plurality.
There are also enormous divisions within the Taliban on the practicability of peace talks with the Afghan Government. One group led by Akhtar Mohammad Mansour is said to favour negotiation, while the battlefield commanders led by Abdul Qayum Zakir want the fight to continue. The Taliban has been demanding complete withdrawal of foreign troops as the precondition for talks. This is going to be a major stumbling block Mr Ghani has insisted on the continued presence of US troops. His overtures to Mr Obama may have complicated matters further.
Also, apprehensive of Mr Ghani’s overtures towards Pakistan, some are asking if Islamabad’s involvement in Kabul’s misfortunes be forgotten. Despite the rhetoric of bonhomie, there are many irritants to an eventual conciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Note that Pakistani responses to Mr Ghani’s overtures have been largely tactical.
Mr Ghani has won praise from Pakistan for not pursuing an offer of heavy weapons from India. And Pakistan’s security establishment has every reason to be pleased with training Afghan soldiers in Abbottabad. But the conflict in Afghanistan will remain unresolved, and no final termination of the conflict will be in sight, as long as Pakistan does not realise that re-building Afghanistan is, essentially, a collective enterprise from which India, as a major regional power, cannot be kept away.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police Security and Criminal Justice in Jodhpur)
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