Afghanistan – Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan is an unfortunate country which has not witnessed stable conditions for decades. Without going too far back in history one finds that ever since the Saur revolution of 1978 when President Daud Khan was overthrown (and he and every member of his family present in the country were slaughtered), there has not been peace in the country for any length of time. Hopes were raised in October 2001 when the US, in retaliation for 9/11, bombed Afghanistan and enabled the Northern Alliance forces to drive out the Taliban from Kabul. And while much has been achieved with the adoption of a Constitution, holding of elections to the two houses of Parliament and the peaceful transfers of power between governments, complete peace in the entire country still eludes Afghanistan.
The US and the other Western countries which comprised the ISAF missed an excellent opportunity from the end of 2001 onwards to put Afghanistan in order. This was due to various reasons. The ISAF was unable to completely subdue the Taliban, largely due to the continuing assistance1 it received from Pakistan. The Taliban can still freely cross into Pakistan and return to take on the Afghan and foreign security forces. Additionally, the US’s focus got diverted to Iraq. Moreover, its objective kept changing from initially focusing on putting down the al Qaeda and eliminating Osama bin Laden. Once these were achieved, it turned to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and institution building. However, its most serious tactical error was to keep believing that Pakistan would come around to acting against those terrorist groups that were acting against the Afghan government and its people. Even after 17 years, the Taliban and the Haqqani groups remain as potent because of Pakistan.
In a private conversation, the late Richard Holbrooke, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a press reporter in 2010: “There are three countries here – Pakistan, Afghanistan and India – with vastly different stages of political, social and economic development. They share a common strategic space. As has happened so many times in history, the weak state is the one that sucks in the other. That’s the history of Afghanistan and now the Great Game is played with different players. The India-Pakistan relationship is an absolutely critical driver.”2Relations between Pakistan and India remain at the centre of the regional conflict, which cannot be solved unless the international community works on these relations too.
Both the Bush and Obama Administrations, while maintaining pressure on Pakistan to control the terrorist groups functioning under its aegis and operating from its territory, were always careful not to completely alienate it. Largely because the US was worried about losing the transit facilities through Pakistan essential to resupply its troops in Afghanistan and was paranoid about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of the terrorist groups.
The Trump Administration has so far shown signs of taking the strongest action against Pakistan for its continued support to terrorist groups. It has held back portions of its financial aid, reduced the quantum of military training and Trump has publicly used the harshest words against Pakistan. Figures tabulated by the Congressional Research Service show a gradual and marked decrease in the US’s aid to Pakistan. In the Financial Year 2011, the total security-related funding amounted to 5,710 million dollars. This has been reduced to 303 million dollars in the FY 2017.3 In addition, Pakistan has been placed on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force for not doing enough to disrupt financing of terrorist groups and consequently, training of terrorists.4 If it is assessed by February 2019 that Pakistan has not made adequate progress in this regard it can be placed on the” blacklist” making it extremely difficult for it to obtain funding from any of the international lending agencies.
Within Afghanistan too there have been a few hopeful steps. After much debate and resistance from various groups, the Election Commission has announced that elections to the two houses of Parliament will be held in October 2018. The June Eid ceasefire was ultimately honoured by the Taliban. Though, expectedly, it resumed armed actions immediately after Eid with a major offensive to capture the city of Ghazni, leading to a large number of casualties on both sides. A few Taliban functionaries have also met with a senior US State Department official in Doha. In another encouraging development, common people from Helmand have marched to Kabul, gathering more volunteers along the way, and have been camping in the diplomatic area of Kabul in an effort to draw attention to their demand for peace in the country.
While these developments are welcome, they will not, in any way, make a significant change to the overall security situation. The writ of the central government in Kabul still does not extend to large areas of the country. A survey conducted recently showed that civilian casualties have gradually increased and overtaken the figures for combatants in the various clashes between the security forces and the militants. Prospects for complete peace in Afghanistan therefore, remain dim. For these to improve the US has to remain involved as have the other neighbours of Afghanistan. Most vitally, Pakistan has to be pressurized to realize that a peaceful Afghanistan will be of benefit to the region and more importantly to Pakistan itself.
2 Steve Coll, Directorate S, pp. 430-431