The Afghan promise


By Shahzad Chaudhry

A promise for peace in Afghanistan can be blunted by two principal and two tertiary factors. The principal ones include the sitting Afghan government especially Ashraf Ghani as the president and the former cabal of the Northern Alliance variously called the Panjsheris, and India which holds unmatched influence over individuals in the government and institutions such as the NDS as it indulges in a dirty proxy-war against Pakistan.

Both may not like to see normalcy reached in Afghanistan since strife and war and an economy around those seem essential to their short-term interests. The spite of having been left out of what is currently underway adds to their frustration.

What is at stake here for Ashraf Ghani? He was a controversial president from the moment of his election but around the good offices of the US caretakers he has kept at the head of a unity government for the last five years. He is now due for another election in May, delayed – sadly for him – to give time to the US point-man, Zalmai Khalilzad, the opportunity to coin peace with the Taliban and enable the US a face-saving exit. This doesn’t spell too propitious for Ghani. He would have hoped for his support from the Kabul elites and their US patrons to sustain as he fought the next election and probably win to be the face in Kabul that the Americans could trust through the next phase of their unending war.

The Panjsheri Tajiks, ever the sworn enemies of the Pakhtun Talibs, could also be placated by the Americans to continue to accept Ghani at the head. With this new objective to vacate Afghanistan, the entire edifice of Ghani’s hopes and prospects – as indeed the eminence that Tajiks, Abdullah and Co – have enjoyed in the government, seem dashed. To Ghani and to the Tajiks peace may not be the first priority; position in power and the control of resources chiefly enabled by American expedition there will be.

The key thus to a successful power-sharing arrangement may be to ensure the prominence of the Ghani-Abdullah combine. Post the elections, were Ghani to win, the political order may perpetuate and find permanence. Otherwise, even if Ghani was to relent the Panjsheri Tajiks would still prove obdurate on the road to peace unless suitably accosted.

At least one effort is afoot to dissuade Ghani’s apprehension. It comes in the shape of the intra-Afghan dialogue for which the Taliban and the rest, minus the Afghan government, have met in Moscow. It may not yet be the feared rejection of the peace process by the Ghani government, but it surely is a tactical attempt at regaining some lost space in the journey. Such tactical play by Ghani may even find support with the US to deny the Russians any space.

So, who all have met the Taliban in Moscow? Hamid Karzai, Hikmetyar and Hanif Atmar. Implicitly the three and other members of the opposition in Afghanistan have done what is right for the people, for Afghanistan, for themselves and for the US. Ghani and his government have thus by inference taken a stance which will appear regressive and deny the US the pace of realising an early closure of war and in forging peace in anticipation of its departure. Alliances for future political dispensations implicitly thus begin to become apparent whenever elections do subsequently happen. We may yet see the return of Hamid Karzai.

Yet Ghani must be incorporated to deliver peace. One way is to plan a prolonged phase of an interim government, say for two to three years, which shall be good to assimilate the warring Taliban and make them agents of peace within and stakeholders in Afghan peace without. The remnants of those who may still fragment from the Taliban in this process or the likes of Daesh and the TTP who may still dot the Afghan landscape may need another concerted effort by the ANSF and the Taliban cadres to eliminate them to deliver peace. Weaned off war and invested in peace and its derivatives of power and prosperity, such a combine in Kabul can lead to improved political stability. Giving Ghani the presidency for three more years in the interim government will invest him in its success.

A disenchanted Afghan government and a piqued Ghani are India’s best bet. The opposite, however, will close India’s acquired space for mischief against Pakistan. So while it isn’t a direct stakeholder in the process, India has the making of a nasty spoiler. To that end it will need to be managed by those who wield influence over it. The US wants peace and an exit; India should not be able to deny what the US may need. Engaging the Afghan government early enough in the process is the best option to deny India its nefarious motives.

Among the two tertiary factors, America’s deep game remains a concern. There are however mitigating considerations. President Trump just last week reiterated he wants out of Afghanistan and will be happy to retain a base in Iraq to oversee Iran. The US also has Iran under check from Bahrain. And a more pliant political order in Afghanistan in the short term will anyway be a convenient arrangement to enable emergent deployments on the Iranian border if ever needed. So Iran isn’t really a big concern for the US from the Afghan prism; especially with the resident capacity to instigate trouble through its intelligence outfits. An alternate base in Afghanistan to a formerly held facility in Kyrgyzstan may have been a consideration but Trump for the moment is content with saving $45 billion.

The second tertiary spoiler could be Iran. They have an increasingly intimate relationship with the Taliban and could play the spoiler if they desire the strife to continue and the US to remain embroiled. Iran already has soft influence through the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Turkics of northern Afghanistan. But, considering its long-standing confrontation with the US, it shall seek a relief at least from one of the three directions – Iraq, Bahrain and the Gulf, and Afghanistan – that the US has it surrounded from. An Afghanistan minus the US and with the Taliban a part of the power circles should translate into a more meaningful Iranian influence vis a vis all others in the region if indeed peace ensues as conceived.

Principally then the need is for Ashraf Ghani to be engaged at the earliest in the process and a system evolved to keep his interest and political ambition suitably provided in the interim arrangement before Afghanistan can revert to full normalcy in its state and societal functioning. A necessary amount of influence will need to be exercised by those seeking peace in Afghanistan and the region to keep the Taliban wisely counselled on the imperative need for them to find accommodation and the space to include all segments in larger Afghan interest. That only can ensure a sustainable surviving order.