SHADOW ON AFGHAN FUTURE
Research Scholar, School of International Studies (JNU)
New Delhi, Dec 19, 2011: Afghan officials and international leaders gathered recently in Bonn a decade after they had assembled at the same place in 2001 to structure a political framework for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. And it is almost an irony that countries now gather to fashion an Afghanistan, amidst the unmistakable influence of the Taliban that refuses to wane down. Moreover, the absence of the Taliban at the talks in Bonn loomed large like a shadow.
Adding to the dilemma of those who gathered there, Pakistan, a major stakeholder boycotted the event protesting against the NATO attack on November 26 that unfortunately killed Pakistani soldiers and opened another diplomatic standoff in the already strained US-Pakistan ties. As a result of the NATO incident, the US has reportedly vacated the Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan and according to Prime Minister Gilani Pakistan’s blockade of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan is likely to stay in place for weeks.
The absence of both the Taliban and Pakistan at the talks reveals a negative sign for reconciliation efforts in the Afghan endgame, as western forces prepare to handover responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014. Add to this the absence of the slain peacemaker, Burhanuddin Rabbani. In addition, a new fear enveloped Afghanistan’s future as possible sectarian bomb attacks against Shia shrines forced the Afghan President Hamid Karzai to cancel his visit to the UK after attending the Bonn conference. The blasts coincided with the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura – the most important day in their calendar which is marked with a public holiday in Afghanistan.
Though tensions exist between Afghanistan’s Sunni and minority Shia Muslims, most attacks in Afghanistan in recent years, have targeted government officials or international forces. “Afghanistan has been at war for 30 years and terrible things have happened, but one of the things that Afghans have been spared generally has been what appears to be this kind of very targeted sectarian attack,” said Kate Clark, from the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
And relating to this horrifying incident, tensions have started developing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries that do not share an easy relationship despite official efforts to look otherwise. Afghan President Karzai reportedly blamed Pakistani extremists for the attacks, and the accusations might open a new ugly phase in the two country’s relationship.
“Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which is based in Pakistan has claimed responsibility for this attack … We will investigate the issue very carefully and will discuss it with the Pakistani government,” Karzai stated. Attacks like these are a chilling reminder of the state of uncertainty and insecurity that envelopes large parts of Afghanistan, needing a constant and sustained effort from concerned countries, even in the case of troop’s withdrawal by 2014. The Bonn conference has pledged to do just that.
Every time leaders meet at different locations and exude official optimism viz the future of Afghanistan, reality dawns and a sober analysis gives a more complex picture and the intractability of the issue. Bringing about an inclusive Afghanistan is one of the primary concerns being propagated but including sections of the Taliban insurgency into talks for a future Afghanistan has been the primary hindrance as well.
As western forces fight their endgame in this beleaguered country, a political settlement has to inevitably bring in the big guys on the other side of the fence. How do you pressurize an insurgency movement that is showing no signs of fatigue on the battle ground? Immediately following 9/11 attacks, the US started its war on terror campaign, successfully overthrowing the Taliban regime and forcing Al-Qaeda to run for its life.
But, an ill-advised campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, according to many analysts took away the much-needed attention from the Afghan conflict. As such, the Taliban slowly resurged and started hitting back at the western forces in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama pledged to change things and his administration came out with the Af-Pak strategy that focused on increasing cooperation from Pakistan to fight the lawless terrain of the notorious Af-Pak border.
Pakistan was recognized a part and parcel of the Afghan headache and its swelling safe havens had to be handled to fight the cancer in Afghanistan. But over the years, surge of troops for the Afghan conflict and various rounds of drone attacks later, the Obama administration seems stuck knee-deep in the Afghan muddle.
Pakistan has clearly been playing double games, to the detriment of security in the region. Since Osama Bin Laden was found and killed inside Pakistan, US-Pakistan relationship has gone downhill, creating more strategic fog in the region. Moreover, even as the Obama administration gropes for a respectable exit and hopes for a political settlement, there are many voices in the US that do not see much hope for reconciliation compromises from the Taliban, unless they believe they are sure to be defeated in the battlefield.
In a June 29, 2010 interview, Michael Mullen, then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated it was “hard to rule out those political entities that are now the enemy might be a part of a political solution.” The dilemma can be clearly seen in America’s dilly-dallying approach towards listing the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization. The Haqqanis are clearly one of the most dangerous threats to western forces in Afghanistan, but the US government seems tormented by the question as to how to legitimize talking to the group, once it is blacklisted.
India’s Foreign Minister S M Krishna addressing the Bonn Conference said Afghanistan today faces at least four deficits: of security, of governance, of development and of investment and that to address these deficits, Kabul needs time, development assistance, preferential access to world markets, foreign investment and a clear end-state and strategy to ensure that it does not once again plunge into lawlessness, civil war, and externally sponsored extremism and terrorism.
“Conceptually there is need for something like a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, involving all the major stakeholders,” he elaborated. Recall that the Marshall Plan was a US policy to economically assist the reconstruction of Europe after the end of World War II and to prevent the spread of Soviet Communism. Underscoring the importance of India as a “stability anchor” for the region, Germany welcomed India’s suggestion for the future of Afghanistan.
India has been one of the largest civilian aid donors to Afghanistan and has sought to increase its convergences with the country, taking its ties to the level of strategic partnership. However, every Indian overture of assistance to Afghanistan has irked Pakistan, and the suspicions regarding Indian maneuver is very much strong. Coupled with the increasing animosity in US-Pakistan ties, the dilemma of both fighting and talking to the Taliban and moreover, the economic problems of the major western donors, Afghanistan’s future does seem bleak at present. But, no success is too sweet and no failure too sour. Hence, one needs to wait and watch as to how the Afghan endgame unfolds in the coming days.–INFA
(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)