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An Elusive Afghan Peace

The genesis of the ongoing Afghan crisis is rooted in the chaos and conflict that engulfed this unfortunate country in the aftermath of the Soviet Afghan war.

The 9/11 tragedy became relevant to the Afghan crisis only as an epilogue to this long conflictual chapter which till now remains unclosed from the previous century. And the fact remains that opportunities were missed in managing the Afghan imbroglio for good reasons as well as bad, and the unpalatable consequences could have been avoided if a country as chaotic and as primitive as Afghanistan, after Soviet withdrawal, had been treated with care and compassion, and assisted in its gradual transition to global standards of conduct and behaviour.The Afghans are not the only victim of the Afghan tragedy. Pakistan has suffered more in multiple ways in terms of refugee influx, socio-economic burden, rampant terrorism and protracted conflict in its border areas with Afghanistan. For decades, Pakistan has remained burdened with millions of Afghan refugees and afflicted by a culture of drugs and guns, commonly known as the “Kalashnikov” culture, which has constantly been tearing apart its social and political fabric. The Afghan crisis, both during and post-Soviet-occupation era has had a direct impact on Pakistan’s social, cultural, political, economic and strategic interests.
This is a reality that even Obama’s former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton acknowledged in a Congressional testimony. Accepting that the US had a share in creating the problem that now plagues Pakistan, she said: “Let’s remember here… the people we are fighting today, we funded them twenty years ago… and we did it because we were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union.’ ‘So, there is a very strong argument which is… it wasn’t a bad investment in terms of Soviet Union but let’s admit what we sow, we harvest.” Even today, the real Afghan issue starts and ends with Pakistan.

And Washington knows this reality. Vice President Joe Biden acknowledges that no strategy for Afghanistan will succeed without Pakistan’s assistance. It is time Washington also realized that if the region’s stability was predicated on stability in Pakistan, special attention is warranted on preventing ‘reactionary’ radicalism in Pakistan and redressing the imbalances in India-Pakistan equation. This is what the late Richard Holbrooke also advised Washington in the last days of his life. He viewed Pakistan as the centre stage of the Afghan issue; so to him, stability in Pakistan was the foremost priority.

He rightly urged Washington to strengthen its cooperation with the people and government of Pakistan, help them stabilize the tribal areas and promote economic development and opportunity throughout the country. No one listened to Holbrooke who died of frustration. Meanwhile, as battleground of the ongoing US-led war on terrorism, Pakistan has been paying a heavy toll on its already volatile socio-economic environment. It is today the only country in the world waging a full-scale war on its own soil and against its own people. In addition to invisible emotional fall-out for our people, this war has cost Pakistan staggering military burden and unquantifiable collateral damage.

In recent years, the US has also been targeting Pakistan with military incursions and drone attacks in our tribal areas. This has had an alarmingly adverse impact on Pakistan’s psyche which is already perturbed by America’s continued indifference to its legitimate India-specific security concerns and sensitivities. The people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan genuinely deserve peace in their war-torn countries. Unfortunately, there is no sign of an end soon coming to this unwinnable and costly war that has not gone beyond retribution and retaliation. The people in the US and its NATO allies are also sick and tired of this conflict and are awaiting their troops to be out of the war theatre sooner rather than later.

The much awaited 2014 is already there. The US may be planning its Afghan “exit” by the end of this year but at least till now, it doesn’t seem to have any dialogue strategy, much less a peace plan to end the Afghan war that in the first instance was a wrong war to start. It forced Taliban out of power but never defeated them. Twelve years later, it is only looking for a ‘strategic stalemate’ in which it can withdraw but not entirely. It plans to leave

behind a certain size of military presence as a training-cum-counterterrorism mission. But those familiar with Afghan history know what it means for any foreign presence on its soil, no matter under what arrangement or nomenclature. The continued US presence in Afghanistan is bound to complicate the post-2014 scenario.

Instead of staving off the possibility of collapse of the Afghan government or a likely large-scale civil war, it might in fact sustain the Taliban motivation to continue fighting. Also different theatres of war require different approaches. Iraq’s “Anbar” blueprint will not work in Afghanistan. Any plan that precipitates intra-Afghan conflict as part of anti-Taliban strategy will seriously jeopardise the reconciliation process and throw this ill-fated country in another fratricidal civil war. It would be a dangerous mistake which will not be without grave implications for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Durable peace in Afghanistan will come only through reconciliation of all Afghan factions with no selectivity or exclusivity. The peace process must be Afghan led, i.e. the Afghan government and the various Afghan groups in particular the Taliban. It is also important that the transition process does not ignore the Afghan demographic reality and is not weighted in favour or against any particular ethnic group. An Afghan settlement will need to be negotiated in an atmosphere of mutual trust and credibility. This could be guaranteed only if the whole peace process is conducted under UN auspices with the involvement of P-5 and Afghanistan’s bordering countries which have direct stake in Afghan peace.

 Regional rivalries can easily stoke the fires of conflict with regional contenders easily reaching out to rival factions within Afghanistan and fuelling the internal conflict that has now already spread to Pakistan.
 As the Afghans approach an agreement on their governance arrangements, the UN should directly engage the neighbours in the region and broader international community in a parallel track on regional security, economic cooperation, and post-conflict peace-keeping operation. The international community should provide for measures supporting a counter-terrorism capability during the transition period. It is also important that the regional countries do not use the territory of Afghanistan for destabilizing activities in third countries.Regional rivalries can easily stoke the fires of conflict with regional contenders easily reaching out to rival factions within Afghanistan and fuelling the internal conflict that has now already spread to Pakistan. To ensure neighbouring countries’ security concerns, a precisely negotiated guarantee of Afghanistan’s “non-alignment” including positive and negative security assurances backed by the UN Security Council would be needed.

A final Afghan settlement must contain international guarantees based on UN Charter’s purposes and principles, for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity of Afghanistan with solemn mutual undertaking by all neighbouring and regional countries to respect the principle of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. International resources will also be crucial to sustaining a peace settlement, and should be contingent on Afghans honouring the accord. To secure a stable Afghanistan, there is a need for sharp focus on Afghanistan’s economic and social development, including trans-regional development.

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