By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

Afghanistan is passing through unfortunate times. Three streams of fragile transition are in progress; all in an indecent haste to meet the 2014 timeline. These are in security, political and economic domains. Though political transition holds the key to success; it is the patchiest of all. Transfer of power to President Karzai’s successor having enough charisma and credibility to hold the country together will determine the fate of remaining two transitions. Most of the stakeholders related to these transitions are fixated to their oft stated positions; in the military jargon they are in a state of “running on the spot”. Ongoing tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan is also an umpteenth replay of a beaten track.

Afghanistan has expressed grave concern at what it called “Pakistani military’s unilateral construction and physical reinforcement activities” along the border. Afghan officials have also claimed that Pakistani forces fired nearly 50 rockets into Kunar on March 25 and 26. In return, the Afghan foreign ministry cancelled a planned trip to Pakistan by Afghan army officers for joint exercises. Pakistan has described the Afghan government’s outburst as an ‘overreaction’ to a local issue. Pakistan’s foreign ministry clarified that no rocket or artillery shells have been fired in the recent days. Pakistani troops merely returned small arms fire at the specific directions from where the militants fired at the Pakistani border posts.

Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani has once again reiterated Pakistan’s stance and desire for peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan, and the need for a successful “Afghan owned and Afghan led peace process.” His remarks came during his recent meeting with General Joseph F Dunford, the NATO/ISAF commander in Afghanistan. General Kayani urged General Dunford, to ‘help Pakistan check cross-border attacks launched from inside Afghanistan.’

To facilitate a solution to Afghan conflict, Pakistan is playing an active role at regional level as well. On April 03, Pakistan participated in trilateral China, Russia and Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan in Beijing. Trio agreed to support the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in playing a greater role on the Afghanistan issue. A day earlier, China and Pakistan also held bilateral consultation on Afghanistan. The two sides agreed that the international community should create favourable conditions for reconciliation, respecting the history, cultural traditions, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan.

As regards political transition, Afghan government has been striving hard to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. During his recent visit to Kabul, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated a call for the Taliban to enter into talks and a wider political process. He indeed issued a veiled threat if Taliban did not oblige, by saying that President Barack Obama is yet to say how many US troops will remain in the country after 2014.

Any future peace talks still face numerous hurdles before they could begin, including confusion over who would represent the Taliban and Karzai’s insistence that his appointees be at the centre of negotiations. Karzai has repeatedly stressed the need to bring Pakistan into such a negotiation process.

Kabul and Doha have come to an agreement on setting up an office for the Taliban in Doha during President Karzai’s recent visit to Qatar. “One of the details of this agreement was that the opposition should use this office only for the peace talks and not any other political purpose,” said HPC member Maulvi Shafiullah Noorestani. “Another part of the agreement is that those Taliban members who are ready for the peace talks should be granted immunity, and any suspension should be removed… the office will be opened by the High Peace Council,” he said. The plan has its critics who doubt whether Doha office would make any difference. National Coalition leader Abdullah Abdullah said he did not believe anything was really achieved by Karzai’s visit to Qatar. Moreover, Taliban refuse to have direct contact with Karzai, saying that he is a puppet of the United States. “The opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is not related to Karzai, it is a matter between the Taliban and the Qatar government,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stated. Pakistan has all along expressed its support for a Taliban’s political office in Doha and has proposed that Taliban should be encouraged to launch their political platforms. The United Nations has welcomed Karzai’s visit to Qatar, and called upon Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

On the economic front Karzai met with Qatari investors and encouraged them to invest in the country: “The future of Afghanistan is guaranteed because our relations have expanded with America and other countries such as China, India and Russia…Afghanistan has good opportunities and resources that we can share with you.”

In the context of drawdown, the US special operations forces have handed over their base in Wardak to Afghan Special Forces. “As we pledged, our forces have transitioned Nirkh district to Afghan national security forces and they have now assumed full responsibility for security in this key district,” General Dunford, said. “The rest of Wardak will continue to transition over time as Afghan forces continue to grow in capability and capacity,” he added. A major operation to airlift thousands of tones of military equipment from Afghanistan has begun. The British troops’ presence will be almost halved by the end of this year, from 8000 to 5,200. At Camp Bastion, the main operating base in Helmand which had grown to the size of a town, there are now expanses of dust where canvas villages once stood.

Lieutenant General Nick Carter, deputy chief of NATO/ISAF said: “the transition to Afghan control is going well…Afghan confidence is our centre of gravity at every level. If the Afghans can look back over the summer and say ‘we managed that’ with only limited help from ISAF, then I think that will give them a really good platform for managing the political transition that has to follow in 2014”. It is a big if! he added. Of the 26 ANSF brigades, only five have reached a standard of fully independent. The UK’s acting ambassador in Kabul, Nic Hailey, said, “We all talk about 2014 as the flagship date but actually by end of 2013 we will know quite a lot about what 2014 will look like. We will know how the ANSF has coped through a fighting season in which they are in the lead”, he added.

No Taliban leader worth his salt is likely to agree to open ended stay of foreign military contingent in Afghanistan, and that too with blanket immunity. Taliban are weighing their options, they would prefer not to disrupt the process, and negotiate with the new president once foreign forces have left. In all probability, there would be residual insurgency in post 2014 time frame and large area of Afghanistan will continue to be outside ANSF control for an indefinite timeframe.

Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI.