End Of The Road For The Afghan-Pak Dalliance?
End of the road for Pakistan Afghanistan?
NEW DELHI: When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani began reaching out to Pakistan, it was evident that the new leader was playing a risky game. The more outspoken critics even accused him of sleeping with the enemy, with common perception in Afghanistan being that Pakistan had been aiding and abetting the insurgency across the border. These critics, however, were silenced when Afghanistan’s engagement with Pakistan culminated in the Taliban, under pressure from Pakistan agreeing to peace talks.
Just as those talks were getting off to a start, albeit a shaky one, everything changed. Last week, the Taliban confirmed that their long standing leader Mullah Omar was dead. The news came at a crucial time given the talks, and Pakistan announced that peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government -- agreed to for the first time in thirteen years -- have been postponed.
To digress briefly, the newly appointed Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour, has ties with Pakistan, and many believe that he has been effectively running the Quetta shura of the Taliban for years, with Omar either dead or indisposed. In fact, news of Omar’s death first emerged in the form of an Afghan officials statement, alleging that the elusive Taliban leader had died two years ago in Pakistan (the Taliban, for the record, denied this, saying that Omar died in Afghanistan a few weeks ago).
The point worth noting here is that the confirmation of Omar’s death removed a unifying figure for the Taliban, with cadres that were opposed to the peace process being further embittered. What followed was a particularly bloody weekend in Afghanistan, with over a 100 people killed in a wave of attacks, including three separate bombings in the capital Kabul in one day that killed at least 77 people; a suicide bombing targeting a militia in the northern province of Kunduz that killed at least 29; and a car bomb that exploded outside the airport in Kabul killing five.
The violence prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to do a volte face on his position on Pakistan, hitting out at the neighbouring country categorically for the first time. The Afghan President accused Pakistan of sending "messages of war" and harbouring bomb-making camps, adding that Pakistan had failed to reign in the Taliban.
“Pakistan still remains a venue and ground for gatherings from which mercenaries send us messages of war," Ghani said. "The last few days have shown that suicide bomber training camps and bomb-producing factories which are killing our people are as active as before in Pakistan. We can no longer see our people bleeding in a war that is exported from outside."
Ghani’s sharp rebuke of Pakistan signals a change in tactic, and puts in jeopardy the entire peace process -- which was enabled by Pakistan’s improved relationship with Afghanistan. The two countries recently signed an agreement between Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) -- a move widely criticised by the camp opposing the betterment of ties.
Ghani’s decision to improve ties is directly linked to Pakistan’s influence over the insurgent, which, in turn, is ironically he main source of ammunition for Ghani’s anti-Pakistan critics. When Ghani came to power in September last year, he quickly signalled a change in policy. Ghani soon after being sworn-in visited Pakistan, and then Pakistan’s army chief and head of intelligence visited Kabul. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tense equation had sunk to an all-time low under the presidency of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai had been openly critical of Pakistan -- accusing the neighbouring country of supporting the Afghan Taliban and providing refuge to the group’s leadership.
Ghani, unlike his predecessor, reached out to Pakistan. Delegations from the two countries made visits across the border; six Afghan army cadets were sent to Pakistan for training; military efforts were coordinated across the shared border; and Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif both issued statements in support of cooperation and bilateral ties.
The shift in policy seemed to be bearing fruit, with reports circulating that the Afghan Taliban -- under pressure from Pakistan was on the verge of agreeing to talks with the Afghan leadership. This was huge. For the first time in thirteen years -- since the US invasion of Afghanistan -- the Taliban, which has thus far maintained that the Afghan government is illegitimate, was ready to initiate a peace process.
Pakistan’s support was the crucial factor in enabling talks. A report in The Express Tribune quoted an unnamed former top commander of the group saying, “Taliban officials, who had been involved in talks with the Pakistanis and the Chinese, and had sought time for consultations with the senior leaders, have received a green signal from the leadership,” adding that “Pakistani officials had advised Taliban leaders to sit face-to-face with the Afghan government and put their demands to find out a political solution to the problem.” The same report quoted another unnamed Taliban source confirming the report and adding that “a small delegation will be visiting Pakistan in days for consultations” to be able to take the discussion with the Afghan government forward.
Then Ghani’s trip to Washington happened, where US President Barack Obama announced the decision to slow troop withdrawal. The Taliban, in turn, issued a statement vowing to continue fighting. "This damages all the prospects for peace, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said of the announcement. “This means the war will go on until they are defeated.”
In fact, Ghani’s predicament -- of needing the US and wanting to begin a dialogue with the Taliban -- is reflected in a statement made by the Afghan President whilst in Washington. Ghani issued an apology -- of sorts -- to the Taliban. He said that peace with the militants was “essential” and that some Taliban members suffered legitimate grievances. "People were falsely imprisoned, people were tortured. They were tortured in private homes or private prisons," Ghani said (as reported by Reuters). “How do you tell these people that you are sorry?" he added.
All this has been the source of much criticism. In an interview with The Guardian, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- said that the country’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if it succumbs to pressure from Pakistan.
This view was echoed by Karzai’s associates who sat in on the interview. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former foreign minister and national security adviser said that the policy amounts to the humiliating “appeasement” of a hostile power who would never change its ways. In a similar vein, Omar Daudzai, one of the most influential officials of the Karzai era who served as chief of staff and interior minister, predicts, “There could be a bloody summer, there will be fighting and there will be disappointments on the dialogue table from time to time.” Daudzai, a former ambassador to Islamabad, added that whilst he thought Ghani’s attempts to woo Pakistan were “courageous,” they would ultimately fail to change the country’s behaviour. “He has taken controversial steps that his predecessor didn’t take, and now we have to wait to see whether the Pakistani side is sincere or not,” he said. “But I am far more sceptical than I ever was before about Pakistan’s sincerity.”
And this is by no means an isolated view. An important figure within Afghanistan, Karzai echoes a distrust that runs deep with the Afghan people.
Ghani, therefore, was under immense pressure to prove that his policy could bear fruit, The recent statement indicates that Ghani has decided that it may be worth sowing these seeds elsewhere.