Afghan President’s mixed priorities
Khalid Iqbal


WHILE his country is in serious turmoil these days, President Ashraf Ghani is busy in useless pursuits. At the international plane, he has taken his anti-Pakistan rhetoric to new heights by threatening to shut the Afghan transit route for Pakistani exports to Central Asia if Islamabad does not allow Afghan traders to use Lahore’s Wahga crossing for trade with India. Pakistan has no problem in facilitating Afghanistan in its imports and exports. Pakistan has, for decades, offered Afghanistan duty free imports and exports at the cost of its national economy, which suffers huge loss as bulk of Afghan imports through transit trade agreement are smuggled back into Pakistan.

But issue of allowing trade with India through Wahga border is quite different as it involves serious security risks for Pakistan. Pakistan has always allowed India to take its goods to Afghanistan via Karachi port. President Ashraf needs to understand that Pakistan’s trade equation with India has different dynamics than transit trade with Afghanistan. India is inflicting huge losses to Pakistani traders through tariff, non-tariff and administrative barriers. Globally, highest number of WTO violation complaints are lodged against India. Insistence of Afghan President to allow trade through Wahga is apparently aimed at promoting India’s commercial interests than Afghanistan’s.
At the politico-military front while Taliban threat is snowballing, President Ghani is wasting time in reaching agreement with dormant militant setups, like Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan of erstwhile Warlord Engineer Gulbadin Hekmatyar. Hezb is all set to join the Ashraf Ghani government after signing a peace pact on September 22. This deal with Afghanistan’s once second-biggest Mujahedeen group that has been largely inactive in the recent years, only marks a symbolic victory for President Ashraf, who has been struggling to revive peace talks with Taliban. The agreement will come into force when it is formally signed by President Ashraf Ghani and Hekmatyar, the government has said, though no date has been set.
Agreement has been signed after two years of negotiations. “Today the peace dialogues have been successfully completed”. The deputy Chief of High Peace Council Habiba Sorabi said at the signing ceremony in Kabul. This agreement will pave the way for Hekmatyar to stage a comeback into mainstream Afghan politics in a pattern well established by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, currently the country’s first vice president. Afghan government will offer Hekmatyar legal immunity in “all past political and military proceedings” as well as release of Hezb-e-Islami prisoners. Like Dostum, Gulbadin’s induction into Ashraf camp in not likely to change the balance of power in Afghanistan.
In a strong message to international community through his speech to the UN General Assembly Prime minister Nawaz Sharif said that Pakistan has long proposed intra-Afghan dialogue as the most viable course to end decades of conflict and suffering in Afghanistan. “We have been facilitating the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan…There have been setbacks. That, however, is not a sufficient reason to abandon the path of peace and rely on the military option, which has failed, for the past decade and a half, to stabilize Afghanistan”.
Meanwhile, US congressmen Ted Poe and Dana Rohrabacher have moved the “Pakistan State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act in Congress” on Sept.21. In a statement posted on his website, Poe demanded US President Barack Obama issue a report “within 90 days of passage detailing whether or not Pakistan has provided support for international terrorism.” “Thirty days after that, the secretary of state must issue a follow-up report containing either a determination that Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism or a detailed justification as to why Pakistan does not meet the legal criteria for designation,” he added.
At this juncture the editorial board of International New York Time did well on bringing Afghanistan back to focus though recent editorial on Sept 17, captioned: The Afghan War quagmire”. The piece has analysed the Afghan situation in the context of President Barack Obama’s two terms of presidency. “Eight years ago, President Obama pledged to wind down the war in Iraq and redouble efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. ‘As president, I will make the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be,’ he said during a campaign speech. “Now, at the twilight of his presidency, these goals are receding further into the distance as America’s longest war deteriorates into a slow, messy slog.”
As an outcome of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, most of the hideouts of terrorist in Pakistan’s tribal belt have been destroyed. A large number of terrorist have been killed, rest are on the run, and some are in the cozy company of President Ashraf Ghani. Lot of Afghan fighters have since long shifted to Afghanistan, where they control sufficient territories. Afghan National security forces do not have the will to challenge their writ in rural areas and US-NATO guys confine their actions in urban centres which Taliban often occupy. Taliban have proved to be extraordinarily resilient and resourceful.
General (R) John Allen, former US mission commander in Afghanistan (2011-13)has recently acknowledged that: “Situation on the ground in Afghanistan has become more challenging and perhaps worsening”. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute is of the opinion that Afghan govt today is cut out from the large parts of country. “We are at a moment of interesting and challenging situation in Afghanistan,” Falbab said.
One tends to agree with NYT’s analysis that “At the very least, the next administration needs to carry out a top-to-bottom review of the war.American taxpayers and Afghans, who have endured decades of war, need a plan better than the current policy, which offers good intentions, wishful thinking and ever-worsening results.” However, one wonders why NYT stopped just short of telling the next president: Stupid! Mainstream the Taliban politically, likes of Karzai and Ghani will lead you nowhere.
The Afghan government remains weak, corrupt and roiled by internal rivalries. The casualty rate for Afghan troops is unsustainable. The economy is in shambles. Resurgent Taliban forces are gaining ground in rural areas and are carrying out meaningful attacks in urban centres, including the heart of Kabul. Opium trade remains a pillar of the economy and a key source of revenue for the insurgency. It is unlikely that the Afghan forces in the near future will be able to defeat the Taliban. Nor is it clear that the Taliban will make any significant strategic gains or be able to take and hold on to strategic terrain. It’s an ugly and costly stalemate. In this backdrop President Ashraf Ghani needs to stop behaving like Modi’s poodle and safe guard at least Afghan interests.