Afghanistan: competing narratives
America’s Afghanistan policy is pegged around a strategy of deliberate ambiguity. At a time when Afghan resistance groups needed a healing touch, putting Haqqanis on the terror list while, at the same time, wishing to engage them in the peace process, has radiated confusing signals. When all resistance groups are unequivocal about complete withdrawal of foreign troops and creation of a new political dispensation, Washington’s pressure on the incumbent Afghan government for stationing its military contingent in Afghanistan is creating an environment of strategic uncertainty.
This vagueness has given rise to speculations about various degrees of rollback of American influence, viz. total hands-off; partial military withdrawal; complete military pullout while retaining economic and political influence of varying degrees etc are some of the assumptions.
In line with its track record, the Americans’ focus has shifted elsewhere, irrespective of the achievability of stated objectives in Afghanistan. Now Afghanistan is only of periphery interest to them. Persistent lowering of the bar in the context of envisaged objectives indicates that they are in a hurry to quit. The American public is war weary and it is eagerly pursuing early and complete withdrawal. Moreover, it is a candid opinion that if the US interest is to keep Afghanistan unstable enough to prevent the flow of Central Asian carbohydrates to South Asia, then presence or otherwise of foreign forces would equally yield this objective for at least short to medium timeframe. However, if Afghanistan is to be stabilized then a systematic viable transition is to be ensured; as of now, there are glaring gaps in the efforts towards these objectives.
Recently, the US Senate approved, by a heavy majority of 62 to 33, a resolution calling for the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. The mover of the resolution, Senator Jeff Merkley said that the time had come to withdraw from Afghanistan as al-Qaeda was no longer in a position to launch a major attack on American soil, and thus the long war should be brought to an end. Another opinion has it that a US military contingent is needed for the Afghan elections in 2014, when some other collaborator than Hamid Karzai must be found to be the President. Both ways, it is an implicit admission of the failure of US strategy.
The Afghan narrative became clear at the recent Paris Conference. Maulvi Shahbuddin Dilawar and Doctor Muhammad Naeem participated in the conference as representatives of the political office of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. They called for a new constitution as a pre-condition for joining the peace process. “Afghanistan’s present constitution has no value for us because it was made under the shadows of B-52 bombers of the invaders. Taliban’s Chief negotiator Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar underlined the need for constitutional amendments to “protect personal, political and social rights of the people and to ensure equal rights to all communities without discrimination... Afghan scholars will draft a constitution in a free atmosphere that will be presented to the people for approval...The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers amendments to the constitution necessary for the balance of power in the future Islamic government”. He declared that: “We are not looking to monopolize power. We want an all Afghan inclusive government. Our respected Amir-ul-Momineen, Mullah Muhammad Omar has repeatedly called for understanding and reconciliation. Mullah Omar respects his political opponents.” He further stated that foreigners and the Kabul regime are not interested in the peace process and they are ‘not willing to pursue the principles of peace’. He argued that: “Had the invaders believed in peace, they would have listened to the just proposals...We believe that the 2014 elections are not beneficial for solving the Afghan quandary because these elections are planned under invasion and will take place during ongoing occupation, therefore the results shall be no different than the previous elections. All observed that the 2004 and 2009 elections did not lessen but increased problems for the Afghans”.
The Taliban representatives were of the view that in the future political setup of Afghanistan, the balance of power or participation in government by all Afghan parties must be ensured. They envisioned that personal, civil and political rights of all citizens of the country should be regulated through the constitution; rights should be given to all brother ethnicities without discrimination. Moreover, for enduring peace, importance must be placed on the aspirations of the people of Afghanistan. The occupation must be ended as a first step which is the desire of the entire Afghan nation because this is the mother of all tragedies. Invaders and their allies must realize that no power can subdue the will of the people, nor can their predicament end with irresponsible and unlawful agreements. The Taliban representatives at the Paris conference especially called upon all those nations whose governments had sent their sons against their approval to kill the innocent Afghan people, to take a page from the French nation and put pressure on their governments to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is in a state of perpetual turmoil. Multilateral processes initiated at Bonn, Istanbul, Islamabad, Kabul, Doha, Tokyo, etc, have not been able to translate into an enabling environment for political reconciliation and reintegration of militants into the political mainstream which are two foundation stones for lasting peace. Major causes of stagnation are a complexly woven pattern of intra-Afghan suspicions and criss-crossing lines of mistrust at bilateral and multilateral levels. Unless these factors are taken into account and a corrective campaign is launched, various actors would continue to operate at cross purposes. Intra- Afghan harmony has always been a difficult objective to achieve, and tricky to sustain. Ethno-sectarian fault lines are deep seated; they have external strings as well as domestic dynamics. These realities cannot be undone; yet there is sufficient tactical and strategic space to construct durable peace process.
All indicators point toward an early withdrawal of occupation forces. Pakistan should brace up for a situation that would emerge out of a complete US withdrawal; the US would, nevertheless, make serious efforts to retain substantial politico-economic influence. Thus, contingency planning to deal with the situation that could arise following Washington’s decision to retain some troops in the country would entail the flying of more troops if the situation worsened. Western diplomats, who had been sceptical for years of Pakistani promises, now admit that Islamabad is serious about promoting stability in Afghanistan. “They seem to genuinely want to move towards a political solution,” said an official from an EU country. Western diplomats candidly opine that Pakistan’s army chief has made reconciliation amongst warring Afghan factions his top priority.
Pakistan should strive for a democratic transition based on one person-one-vote basis and dispel the impression of favouring any particular ethnic group; it needs to own all Afghans.