External Affairs

What the World Can Do to Make Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace Succeed

It is time India and Pakistan began thinking about how they can work together to ensure peace and stability in the country

Spectators watching a dogfight in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Balasz Gardi/Flickr

All We Can Do Is Watch: Spectators at a dogfight in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Balasz Gardi/Flickr

Peace has remained elusive for most Afghans ever since the seeds of conflict were sown way back in 1973, the year the monarchy – that pillar of stability in a mainly tribal and multi-ethnic society – was abolished. In 1978, with the toppling of Dawood’s government, armed resistance began to take root. Since then, Afghanistan has never known peace.

The country has been through many upheavals in the past four decades but just when there was some hope of normalcy returning with most coalition forces preparing to leave, the situation looks even more gloomy and bleak. In the last one year alone, more than 150,000 Afghans have left the country as expectations for a better future subsided and uncertainty took hold. Afghans today constitute up to 20 per cent of the ‘Syrian’ refugee flow into Europe.

Despite the massive infusion of funds over the past 14 years, the country’s socio-economic statistics are frightening. Unemployment, which currently hovers around 50%, is a grim reminder of the fact that the country is easily one of the poorest on the planet; 90% of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from external inflows or spending by the coalition forces. Annual expenditure on the army and police amounts to about $5 billion whereas the country generates less than $2 billion in tax revenue every year. Opium is cultivated on 125,000 hectares of land with production exceeding more than 6000 tons. The revenue from the sale of opium or heroin is about one-third of Afghanistan’s measurable GDP; cannabis is being cultivated on another 15,000 hectares.

The resistance either controls, administers or has influence in decision-making in more than 50% of the country’s territory. Proof of that claim lies in the fact that convoys of the armed forces, including sometimes those of the coalition, have to pay ‘taxes’ to the Taliban when they pass through territory controlled by the latter. This practice has been going on for the past 10 years. Chinese and other foreign companies prospecting for oil, gas and minerals have to pay similar taxes to ensure the security and protection of their employees. It is no secret that some governors of provinces with a substantial presence of the resistance have to reach an understanding with the local Taliban commanders to ensure their own security.

More insurgents in the fray

The emergence of groups like the Fidai Mahaz, the Turkistan Islamic movement (TIM) and lately Daesh have further compounded the security scenario. Although these outfits control a very small area compared to the main Taliban movement, their presence and activities have cast a shadow of gloom over the prospects for peace and stability. The Fidai Mahaz has its presence in central Afghanistan; the TIM operates from time to time on the northern fringes of the country, mainly in Kunduz and Balkh provinces, while Daesh has been confined to Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.

Of course, these groups have created a space for themselves not at the expense of the government but the Taliban. That is why there have been skirmishes between their supporters from time to time.

This picture of several groups desperately trying to gain influence and control at the expense of one another has created an acute environment of fear about an escalating cycle of violence in the country. Coupled with rising levels of poverty, this uncertainty about the security and future of the country has forced many Afghans to consider the option of leaving the country – legally or illegally. No wonder the passport office in Kabul went into high gear and has started issuing 2000 passports every day in recent weeks.

Three reasons to be hopeful

At stake is not only the unity and integrity of an important country but also the stability and economic prosperity of a troubled region.

Afghanistan sits on minerals worth more than $1 trillion. It has, besides oil and gas, huge deposits of copper, lithium, precious stones, manganese etc. The country is a bridge between South Asia and resource rich Central Asia. It shares a long border with Iran, which is poised to play a major role in the region following its recent nuclear agreement with the US. The Chinese economic initiatives that are being launched in the energy, commerce and other sectors would certainly deliver a tremendous boost to the fragile economy of war-shattered Afghanistan if the conflict were to end.

Though pessimism abounds today, there are three reasons for hope and optimism.

First is the resilience of the Afghan National Army, which has not buckled under pressure in areas from where the foreign forces have left. Although at one point in time its desertion rate had jumped to 35%, the situation is no longer as bleak. The ANA has held its ground in the face of enormous pressure as coalition troops began to withdraw.

Second, there is this feeling of war-weariness in the population. More than 35 years of conflict have devastated the country and its people; hundreds of thousands have been killed or disabled for life; infrastructure has been damaged, houses and villages destroyed; education, farming and healthcare systems are in disarray. There is a deep yearning for peace amongst ordinary Afghans.

Third, there is a split in the ranks of the once cohesive and integrated Taliban hierarchy. The Taliban, after the death of their leader Mullah Omar, are not speaking with one voice. Besides their authority has been challenged by the advent of organisations like Daesh etc. The Kunduz offensive has caused more harm to the movement because they took control of a city they knew they can not hold on to. They lost many fighters and inflicted damage on the city and its helpless population. Such grave errors of judgment occur when a movement begins to lose its central goals and objectives .

Impediments to peace

The appetite for peace is huge among an overwhelming majority of the people. But there are daunting challenges in the way of a transition to stability.

There is a strong pro-status quo lobby in the country – people who have gained resources, power and influence courtesy the windfall delivered by the generosity of the international community. These elites, with their villas in the Gulf and Europe, would like foreign forces to stay in the country indefinitely so that they can continue to enjoy the fruits of their ‘enterprise’. To the extent to which the prospect of reconciliation threatens their position or their survival, they would rather the current conflict continued.

But a bigger obstacle is the Taliban’s refusal to accept the idea that the country now has a viable political system that is rooted in participatory democracy – based on the will of the people and reflected in the functioning of parliament. The Taliban insist that  since the country was under foreign occupation (in their view) when these institutions were being created, they have no credibility. This divergence of perception can be addressed by making a few minor changes in the constitution to make it more compatible with an ‘Islamic system’, without, of course, compromising on the democratic rights of the people, especially women.

The other major roadblock to mainstreaming the Taliban is the continuing presence of foreign forces. This issue can be resolved only when the insurgents and the government reach a broad understanding on how the Taliban could be integrated into the political, electoral and administrative structures of the country. That will be a most intricate and difficult undertaking, considering the tough positions the Taliban have taken on some issues in the past.

Nevertheless, an agreement in principle on the total withdrawal of all foreign forces – to be guaranteed by regional countries – and the vacation of all foreign military bases will have to be indispensable ingredients of any peace formula that is to have a chance of success. Once this principle has been accepted and a stipulated timeframe laid down for the departure of all external forces, an appropriate ambience will be created to deal with that most complex of all issues: the governance system.

Contrary to the views of many observers, the Afghans have the ability to work out the contours of a broad understanding that will deal conclusively with all contentious issues in an atmosphere where no other countries interfere covertly or overtly in the intra-Afghan parleys. No country should seek to install its favourites; no country should seek to bind the Afghans into a foreign policy that fits into its own regional agenda.

India and Pakistan can work together

With Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj due in Islamabad for the Heart of Asia meeting on Afghanistan, it is time that India and Pakistan began thinking about how they can work together to ensure peace and stability in the country.

Pakistan has a vital stake in peace in Afghanistan, perhaps more than any other country. But Islamabad has more than one power centre. There is also a lack of vision and perhaps a lack of capacity. Forcing the Taliban to sit for negotiations is the easy part. But with no consensus on the issues confronting the interlocutors, making headway is difficult. Most Pakistani leaders have little idea of the genesis of the conflict or what it is all about. It would be naïve to assume that the struggle in Afghanistan is only about a share in the government for those opposing the Kabul government. It is about systems that are rooted in the aspirations of the people; it is about the withdrawal of foreign forces; it is about Kabul asserting its sovereignty and independence; it’ is about the Afghans determining their own destiny.

Regional countries have a role to play – other than pledging not to intervene directly or covertly and not to support one group or another. Regional countries should invest in the Afghans and Afghanistan. Issues of ethnicity and tribes are for the Afghans to resolve. Who rules the country is an issue for the Afghans to resolve .

It is time that Pakistan and India take each other into confidence on their roles in Afghanistan. Their roles need not be mutually exclusive. India is the fifth largest donor to Afghan reconstruction. Any objection by Islamabad to India’s role in Afghanistan causes the most severe resentment in Kabul. Pakistan has the right to demand that Afghan soil not be used by any one against its interests. But beyond, that Islamabad must recognise the right of Afghanistan to foster closer ties with India, a major regional country that has had relations with Afghanistan spread over two millennia.

Rustam Shah Mohmand is a former interior secretary of Pakistan and former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan