Afghanistan: The Challenges and the Opportunities

Spearhead Analysis – 17.09.2018

Bajwa-Kabul ConferenceThe protracted conflict in Afghanistan is in its seventeenth year or as a wit said— ‘there has been a new war in Afghanistan every year for the last seventeen years’. The seventeenth US commander is now in command in Afghanistan. US strategy in Afghanistan has moved from outright military victory, to democracy building, to provincial reconstruction teams for rebuilding the country, to troop withdrawals, to troop surges, to refusal to talk to the Taliban and now a push for political reconciliation and a willingness to talk to the Taliban. The constant in these strategies has been the uncertainty over the US end game that led to serious concerns among US allies—most notably Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan. Now that the US has agreed to talk to the Taliban—the first round having been held in Doha with another expected soon—there are signs of the uncertainty having ended with the US planning to stay on in Afghanistan. The problem is that a single tweet from President trump could trump all this—after all his new year tweeted attack on US ally Pakistan sent the US administration scrambling to formulate a policy to fit the Presidential tweet,

There is now cautious optimism and this is because of several events. The Eid ul Fitr cease fire that showed the world what could be the shape of things if peace were to come to Pakistan. President Ghani’s offer of unconditional talks with the Taliban, Pakistan-Afghanistan efforts to improve relations by institutionalizing structures for interaction, US willingness to talk to the Taliban and the Taliban decision to talk with the US without the precondition of all alien forces leaving Afghanistan. There is also the Russian and Chinese interest in bringing about political reconciliation in Afghanistan. There is of course a darker side to this picture. There is a vast difference in the US projection of the ground situation in Afghanistan and the reality of the situation on the ground—vast areas of Afghanistan are either under Taliban control or disputed, uncontrolled opium production to cater for the limitless demand from the West, fractures within the Unity Government of Afghanistan, possible differences between Taliban factions that impose constraints on the Taliban’s central decision making, the growing presence of IS-K (Islamic State– Khorasan), the declining capacity of Afghan Security Forces as seen in the Taliban attack on Ghazni and Afghanistan’s inability to sustain itself without external funding from multiple donors—in fact this has been a constant in Afghanistan’s history. The coming elections in Afghanistan and former President Karzai’s manipulations add to the bubbling cauldron together with the warlords asserting themselves as they jockey for power and influence.

All these considerations lead to the inescapable conclusion that a dialogue that leads to a negotiated settlement is the only viable course of action. As an Afghan official recently said that a military solution is possible only if the resources required for such a solution are made available. The quantum of resources required for outright victory has never been computed because these are unlikely to be ever made available. One side negotiating from a position of strength is also not an option because neither side is or has ever been in a position of strength. In fact, both sides have weaknesses and that perhaps is as good reason for talks as anything else. The serious shortcomings of the policy to pressure and coerce Pakistan are now apparent. Pakistan was and remains a US ally—it has not closed the ground and air lines of communications (GLOC and ALOC) for the US through Pakistan and it remains in contact with the US administration at several levels. Nor is Pakistan doing anything to increase the threat level within Afghanistan. The US simply does not understand Pakistan’s concerns and constraints or it does not want to understand them because then it could not be made the scapegoat for the seventeen-year march of folly in Afghanistan. Pakistan needs to be appreciated for the many things it could do in Afghanistan that it is not doing in the interest of future peace and stability.

Pakistan has carried out determined and resolute military operations to sideline the terrorist threat within Pakistan. It has paid a heavy price for success. It is not about to do anything that could create a backlash and recreate the threat. Through intelligence backed security operations Pakistan has snapped the linkage between terrorists and criminals and dismantled politically sponsored criminals and militants. Again it is not about to jeopardize this success by acting under outside pressures. Pakistan’s democracy is on a sustainable track and the popular elected government is acting in the best interests of the country and is fully backed by the military and judiciary. This backing will gain strength as the government gains credibility through effective governance. Pakistan’s economy is getting on a recovery track and the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) is rightly being called a game changer. Above all Pakistan understands the fifth generation war being waged against it by a convergence of outside interests and it is developing the capacity to defeat this threat comprehensively by orchestrating all its resources. Pakistan for the first time is balancing its foreign policy keeping in mind the geopolitical and geostrategic realities of its location.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)