In the winter of apprehensions about post-2014 Afghanistan, the good news is that the visiting Afghan parliamentarians, intellectuals and journalists at the SAFMA organised two-day conference were optimistic that their country will not convulse into a civil war after the ISAF drawdown.
The Afghan delegates I talked to on the sidelines of the conference view was that Afghanistan has changed “it’s no more the Afghanistan which destroyed itself after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union forces in 1989 and the objective conditions of the region have also transformed.” Hence Afghan Taliban will not be able to take over Kabul government as they did in mid 90s.
So what has changed in Afghanistan from the ground realities of 90s?
First, the new optimism is heavily reliant on the promises of the NATO countries that the world will not turn its back on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of a bulk of their forces. And that they have promised to leave behind 8000-12000 forces back to help Afghanistan stabilise its infant democratic structure.
Second, the 260,000-strong Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) is gradually taking up the frontline role from the NATO forces hence they would be able to guard against any Taliban insurgency and warlords attacks. “Most of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces,” Afghan parliamentarian Ghani from South-Eastern province Paktika, says “are peaceful and you will be safer there than Karachi.” His uncle lives in Karachi so he knows about the poor law and order situation of the city.
Third, the Afghans are banking a lot on the foreign assistance of US$8billion per annum promised in the Security and Defence Cooperation Agreement (SDCA) for development and maintenance of the ANDSF. Though this agreement has been approved by the Afghan Loya Jirga, President Karzai, in a clumsy attempt to prove that he is not an American stooge is showing reluctance to sign it. But most of the Afghan delegates at the conference supported SDCA as it will be a guarantor of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan
Fourth, the Afghan delegates think that SDCA is crucial for peace in Afghanistan because it guarantees that terrorist insurgencies (read Taliban) would not be allowed into Afghanistan from outside, implicitly meaning Pakistan.
Fifth, the Afghan society has changed as the post 1990 generation wants to live in a modern Afghanistan, and not in Taliban’s medieval Afghanistan. The women of Afghanistan, they say, have joined the economic and political mainstream. Print and electronic media is booming.
Sixth, the Afghan economy, according to Dr. Wadeer Safi, has flourished over 7% in the last few years. And the investments in the unexplored vast natural resources have already started with China and India taking a keen interest in mining projects. Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce Chairman Azarakhsh Hafizi was of the view that the present $5 billion legal and informal trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan has the potential to increase manifold. His presentation on how both countries should concentrate on increasing their economic ties had a message for the old-fashioned champions of strategic depth that the soft power of economic diplomacy is the way forward. Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz rightly pointed out that building peace is important to move towards “shared prosperity.”
But now let’s look at the challenges which may dampen some of the optimism.
Firstly, much of the optimism is based on the promises of the western world. The past record of their promises is not promising. The financial aid is already dithering and the heavily foreign assistance-reliant economy has slowed to just around 3% in the out-going year. Reports are that apprehensive educated and business classes have already packed their suitcases and the flight of capital is getting higher by each day.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that ANDSF will remain steadfast if the Taliban insurgencies gain momentum once the ISAF forces leave. There have been some desertions already.
Thirdly, at present prospects of a successful Afghan government and Taliban talks are not bright. Both sides know that eventually they have to come to a deal. But before that there is strong possibility that Afghan Taliban would like to raise the heat on ground to get the best deal on the table.
Fourthly, the success of peaceful transition in Afghanistan depends a lot on the fact that there is no proxy war between Pakistan and India for installing their favorites in Kabul. Now this is perhaps the biggest challenge. It gets further complicated as one Afghan speaker pointed out that as long as China would use Pakistan as a base to encircle India from the west, India is likely to increase its stronghold on Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan.
That brings us to the conventional thinking in the security establishment that Afghanistan is important for the strategic depth of the country. Pakistan’s defense analysts at the conference, interestingly all former armed forces gentlemen, tried to convince that Pakistan has moved away from the ‘strategic depth’ policy and it believes in non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. But in the same breath AVM Shahzad Chaudhry, also emphasised that Pakistan wants no single country should dominate Afghanistan (My emphasis). And that Afghan security forces should have equal relations with neighbouring country. To this an Afghan parliamentarian commented “nobody should tell us who should be guests in our homeland.”
In an earlier session Asad Umar, who has to sadly defend PTI’s weak pro-Taliban policy said “our manifesto is clear that we would not allow anyone to violate our sovereignty, and would not allow anybody to violate the sovereignty of another country from our soil.” Sounds reasonable! But in the case of Pakistan this formulation is standing on its head, as Pakistan is an insurgents’ base for operating in Afghanistan and India. Once we will stop all shades of Jihadis, who have taken upon themselves the holy task of spreading Islamism in the world and respect the sovereignty of our neighbours, we would be in a much stronger position of standing up against drones and other covert interferences against Pakistan.
As the tribal areas of Pakistan have become the haven for all kinds of terrorists most participants were of the view that till this under-developed and unruly region is integrated with the rest of the country’s political system the writ of the government cannot be established. But the discussion that followed became heated as Afghan delegates narrated their historical position that Durand line which was drawn under duress by the British in 1893 is not accepted by them. So with an over 2640 Km ‘line’ which Afghans are allergic to call ‘border’ how do we stop the insurgents moving to and fro to Afghanistan? The consensus was as that there should be a more effective ‘Durand line management’ without disturbing the movement of the two-house tribes who live on both sides. When I asked the former Information Minister of Afghanistan Hamid Mubariz, who was emotionally charged on the Durand line issue, that where the new border should be drawn, his reply was making the border irrelevant like European Union. My take was that his main concern was access to sea and not taking over the tribal areas which are infested with many Al Qaeda inspired militant groups. ANP leader Afrasiab was right that Durand Line issue has been there for over a century and we have moved on, so right now we should focus on bringing peace to the region and let the contentious issue lie for another 100 years.
(The writer is author of What’s wrong with Pakistan? He can be reached at email@example.com)