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Afghan peace process: Now or never

By Sujeet Sarkar-Afghanistan is headed towards its bloodiest summer, after the fall of Taliban, post 9/11. There has been unprecedented surge in Taliban strike, posing a serious threat to the internal security and stability of the country. The attack of Taliban   has spiraled from its traditional bastion of southern provinces, bordering with the fragile terrorist sanctuaries of Waziristan, to the once relatively stable northern provinces. The Taliban has further wormed their way to the federal capital and attacking Kabul at their free will. And the military and civil causality is escalating at an alarming rate, with every passing day. The Taliban is appearing more threatening than ever. Between January 1 and June 15, 2015, more than 2500 army and police personnel have been killed, a whopping 53 percent more than the same period in 2014, according to NATO.The data of civilian killing by Taliban almost depict the same trend. The officials at the Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported ongoing counter-insurgency operations in 14 provinces, estimating the total number of districts facing grave security threats nationwide to range between 40 and 50. The territorial gain by Taliban doesn’t augur well for the beleaguered nation.

After the exit of U.S and NATO from combatant role, the local force of Afghanistan is directly facing the heat of the Taliban for the first time, since 2001. The mounting civilian and military causality is sparking a growing apprehension about the capability of the NATO trained Afghan forces to maintain security and further quell the surging Taliban offence. And this comes on the top of the country’s deep political divisions and wounds, aggravated by the presidential election, have not begun to heal. The political difference between the two groups, wedded under an uneasy unity government arrangement is opening up. This has resulted towards political stalemate and frozen appointment in key position.  The vital defense ministry was devoid of a leader, for close to three months, at a time when the Taliban have been making aggressive headways. Afghanistan’s future remains precarious at best and more uncertain than ever.

It is particularly disturbing to note that humanitarian aid workers are increasingly becoming target of Taliban. Even by the Taliban’s own crude metrics, the aid workers were generally spared, in the past. This spring all the laid barometer of Taliban are seen to be failing and the gap between military, civilian and humanitarian sector are blurring. The Afghan war has started seriously constraining humanitarian capacities of the aid agencies. The prolong unrest and growing insecurity is choking the development process and crippling the already fragile economy to a halt. This doesn’t augur well for a country, where the misery of citizens is only getting from bad to worse.

The unfolding grim situation in Kabul has once again reiterated the need to pursue the peace process, with a renewed vigor. The international community is once again upbeat about the idea of engaging with Taliban, in their bid to solve the Afghan deadlock. The brazen attack on the parliament however has partially damaged the prospects for peace talks between the government and the Taliban. But there are enough rationale minds in the political circle of Kabul not to let the attack dampen the chances of striking a peace deal with Taliban.

The Afghan peace process is being viewed as the brainchild of the U.S. military think tank and was zealously pursued by the U.S. However the political fall out between Karzai and Obama administration, coupled with the killing of the peace chair Rabbani by Taliban halted the peace process. After more than decade of relentless military operation, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Taliban is far from vanquished. In fact the whole military operation is turning out to be counter-productive and the Taliban is only emerging ahead of the game.  Military operation is not the solution for the Afghanistan fiasco anymore.

The international strategic community may see the initiation of peace process as a meek submission before Taliban. But Afghans have learned an inescapable lesson that peace, security and prosperity cannot be achieved through war and bloodshed, anymore. This creates a ground for political engagement with the moderate Taliban, under the fold of the Afghan peace process.

The moderate Taliban refers to those who are ready to denounce violence and terrorism and willing to join the mainstream development and political process. The Government of Afghanistan is even contemplating the concept of Afwa (meaning forgiveness or political amnesty) for the moderate Taliban. The patch-up-terms would include the Taliban laying down their weapon on the terms of Afghan Government and abiding by the Constitution. The international policy experts anticipate that the proposed peace process would eventually result towards a structured power sharing deal between the moderate Taliban and the incumbent Government of the present day. President Ghani may be compelled to accommodate some key Taliban leaders in the power structures, to make the peace process work and last in the interest of Afghanistan.

The new political set up in Kabul is showing some early sign of rapprochement with Taliban to drive the peace process.  President Ghani is gravitating more towards the all weather duo of Pakistan and China. Afghanistan is relying on the political goodwill of China to influence Pakistan to cooperate in the peace process. By visiting China in his first leg of foreign tour, the president   has made his intention loud and clear. Along with infrastructure investment, Afghanistan is keen on enlisting China’s support towards facilitating reconciliation talks between the Afghan government, the Taliban and their Islamabad based mentors. Given the strategic nature of Chinese-Pakistani relations, Beijing is in a strong position to influence the policies of the Pakistani security establishment towards Taliban.

The heavy handedness of ISI in aiding and abetting Talban insurgency in Afghanistan is well documented in the white house. All western call for Pakistan to act tough on terror has gone into deaf ears. In the past, Islamabad has played the China card in to blunt the US pressure to tame Taliban and dismantle terrorist sanctuaries spread over Waziristan.

The actual source of the present day crisis in Afghanistan boils down to Pakistan. Hence Pakistan also has to be part of the solution. Ghani’s approach of making Pakistan a key party to the peace process may sound cynical but stands politically pragmatic. Ghani’s priorities toward Pakistan are vastly different from his predecessor’s approach. Pakistan had played a significant part in its own way in Ghani’s victory in the presidential election last year and also views the present government in Kabul far more sympathetically. As a result, the milieu of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan has significantly improved in the period since Ghani took office. More than the premier Nawaz Sharif’s, the visit of the Army head Rahel Sharif’s to Kabul has set the ground for better strategic ties.
During the past seven months, Ghani has worked hard to improve relations between the two neighbors.To address Pakistani suspicions, he has toned down Afghanistan’s traditional alliance with India and step up unprecedented security cooperation with Islamabad, despite facing a volley of domestic opposition.To allay fears of Afghanistan’s   growing proximity with India; President Ghani has sidetracked the issue of ongoing security cooperation with India. The repeated calls of the Karzai government to support Afghanistan with military and machine have been put on the back burner by president Ghani.  These developments have kept Pakistan and its all-powerful army in good spirit.

Pakistani civilian and military leaders have made pragmatic statements. Afghan officials were elated when Pakistan’s dominant army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, declared that the “enemies of Afghanistan are enemies of Pakistan” during a visit to Kabul in February 15. The unfortunate attack of army school in Peshawar has made the Pakistan army realize the threat posed by Taliban.  And the two countries are seeing a common enemy in Taliban, for the first time, in the  history. The new reality has created a common ground for both the nation to chase the Taliban for the time being and influence them to participate in the peace dialogue. The extension of the new military doctrine of Pakistan wont be extended to its arch rival India, for sure. It would be restricted to a limited scale use, in Afghanistan only.

On its part, India should do nothing that may pause the growing trust between Kabul and Islamabad. The new political think tank in Kabul has regarded their relations with Pakistan as by far the most critical priority of their foreign policies. Hence India should cooperate with Afghanistan and give up its rigid stance on any form of engagement with Taliban.

India and Pakistan have large strategic stakes in Afghanistan. They are going to influence the peace process, according to their long-term strategic goals in Afghanistan. India in particular, has vociferously expressed its fear and strategic concerns about the ongoing peace process. It fears that in the name of engaging with moderate Taliban, the pro ISI Taliban hardliner would be accommodated in the power corridors of Kabul. This would provide them the political leeway to advance the Pakistan agenda and edge out India from thick of things, in Afghanistan. India has employed a development kitty of almost 1.6 billion USD, a huge grant, even by international standards. India is the largest civilian donor in Afghanistan, after U.S. and Japan. In addition to the existing historic and cultural ties, India’s development forays in Afghanistan have generated tremendous popular and political good will, in the country. There is no match for the vast reservoir of goodwill that Afghan people feel towards India. Hence by staying away from the peace game, they tend to gain more in Afghanistan. It has to just safeguard its long-term strategic interest.  The strong presence of northern alliance is a sufficient condition for India to see that ISI is checked from running away with their peace module in Afghanistan. Also with the US micromanaging the peace process, in turn would inhibit Pakistan from milking the peace process in Afghanistan. India should rather build a popular consensus that any peace process should be Afghan led, owned and controlled.

The rediscovered bonhomie and growing affinity between Afghanistan and Pakistan must show decisive result in Afghanistan. Even though the security cooperation between the two embattled nation faced by the common threat of Taliban has improved, but yet to be termed as satisfactory. At best such cooperation can be termed as seminal effort by both sides to neutralize tensions and respond to each other’s concerns. The ISI must now cut its umbilical cord with Taliban and stop fanning unrest in Afghanistan.  The recent increased spate of attack in Afghanistan   has put more pressure in Islamabad to oblige its commitment of acting tough on Taliban.

President Ghani has put a large stake on Pakistan to advance the peace process in Afghanistan. India must trust his judgment and his good intentions as he navigates his country through a tiring and trying period in its history, beset with existential problems. The path to peace is certainly going to be very tumultuous in Afghanistan. There is no homogenous opinion about the proposed peace process, within the international community. They are divided among themselves with multiplicity of views and opinions, largely colored by their respective strategic priorities. Navigating a peace process amid complex mire of larger international interests would certainly be a herculean task for Afghanistan.

However Peace should be given a chance to prevail in Afghanistan, allaying all such presumptuous fears and concerns. This is high time for some path breaking and defining steps in Afghanistan. It is now or never, the so-called “end game” in military parlance. Pakistan in alliance with its big brother China should not squander the possibility of contributing to the peace process, through a political process, in Afghanistan. Also, most of the peace building processes in conflict-ridden countries fail as the state put up rigid pre-conditions for such dialogue. President Ghani should adopt a flexible and constructive approach for building durable peace in Afghanistan. The world is excitingly waiting to witness the fate of the peace process in the country.

Sujeet Sarkar works as an international advisor on governance and writes columns on international affairs for leading international dailies. He has authored an acclaimed book on Afghanistan titled In Search of a New Afghanistan. The views, perception and opinion expressed in this article are purely of the author.

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