Source: Economic Times

Salma Malik 

When what appears centuries ago, the U.S. set out on a crusade to “reboot” project Afghanistan, it was with utmost confidence, and bravado. The landlocked “failed” state was a total contrast to mighty America, who came fully equipped with the necessary software and a surgically precise plan for this noble deed. A strong security apparatus comprising regular military, private contractors and its NATO allies as a sidekick to crush ground resistance, complemented by a heavy dose of democracy, which could never go wrong, Afghanistan in very little time would be cleansed from all things bad and be on a path of progress. The larger mission was to turn and transform Afghanistan into a model of democracy and ideal governance and purging the world from the evil duo comprising the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Cynicism aside, nineteen years later, the U.S.’ noble transformation has met with less than moderate success. Despite a “democracy,” the rulers of Kabul have tenaciously protected their turfs, at the cost of compromising the same institution that has brought them forth. Both presidents, Karzai and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, were carefully selected and brought forth as model candidates, through an electoral process that was closely guarded and micro managed by Washington. Karzai, the handpicked West’s poster boy of what would be the post-Taliban modern, westernized Afghanistan, in the latter part of his thirteen long years ruled the governance and security challenged Afghanistan from the inner confines of Kabul’s presidential palace, fearing for his life. Labeled paranoid and abusing prescription drugs, the West was more than happy to get rid of him constitutionally. On his part, Karzai placed the entire blame for all things wrong firstly on the most convenient scapegoat Pakistan, and then to strike a chord home, on Washington.

Dr. Ashraf Ghani a world fame technocrat, the guru of governance is also now being termed by the West as an autocrat and spoiler of the peace process. As for his governance skills, the fragile yet an educated, vocal and vibrant civil society in Afghanistan call him a dictator and a failure in muted hushed voices, fearing the wrath of government, their friends and colleagues spy on them. They have been calling him a dictator for long, disappointed that many of his promises and hopes they held in his person fell through. It appears that he failed to read and learn from his own book.

Afghanistan today is not the country that U.S. entered post 9/11. It has governance, progress, infrastructural development, as stated earlier, a vibrant and educated civil society, many of which initially returning from the West has a mix of locals as well who proudly carry the ambition and vision to make their homeland progressive, strong and prosperous. But none of this can happen in the absence of sustainable peace and comprehensive security. Afghan economy still remains heavily affected by the parallel informal and illicit money networks. The initial aim of turning areas such as Helmand and Amu Darya basin back into Little California, was soon replaced by appeasing and winning favors of the local elite whose “minor indiscretions” included drugs and trafficking. The oppressed Afghan woman, who was an integral part of the West’s crusade against primitive Mullah, though today stands in a much better and privileged position, and is showcased by all the Afghan political parties to show their broad-mindedness, but can the Afghan government guarantee an increasing role and more space for her in case of a future set up which has a high conservative content?

Washington is not known to be a very patient partner, its policies and interlocutors have been dubbed arbitrary by Kabul. What the U.S. considered a cakewalk in weeding out the militants and terrorists within weeks to months, has unfolded into nineteen long years of active conflict claiming umpteen lives, draining trillions of dollars and giving birth to new challenges for which the former has no concrete solution. This is exclusive of the impact regional countries; mainly Pakistan had to face, more as a frontline state in bearing the brunt of American follies than as an ally. Two decades of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan has made the U.S.-Pakistan relations much worse and transactional than before. Washington which happily endorsed India’s February 2019 Balakot strikes was found several months later appreciating Pakistan as an important and fundamental stakeholder in Afghan peace process. Pakistan was once again deemed central in bringing the variety of Afghan stakeholders to a consensus; conveniently forgetting that Islamabad had consistently in the past been trying to convince a stubborn Washington to dialogue with Taliban leadership who could be brought to negotiating table.

In this backdrop, it was no wonder that both president Ghani and concerned policy circles in Pakistan held little faith and remained skeptical of any agreement signed, for their specific set of reasons. For Ghani, amongst many things it was the U.S.’ typical transient approach and not taking the Afghan government on board. The delay and outcome of the election had turned Ghani more controversial and alienated. His concerns of a time-bound withdrawal, prisoner swap and legtimisation of the Taliban as the biggest militia with solid control over territory under its control, while Kabul still remained physically weak were generally ignored by Washington in its eagerness to sign a deal with the Taliban. For policy circles in Pakistan, the skepticism remains genuine, in case of the failure of the talks, the probability of Afghanistan spiraling into a vicious and deadly civil war remains very high. Despite all the safeguards that Islamabad may build to prevent a flight of population, militants, goods and spillover effect of conflict, it will still be the worst affected. Given Washington’s history, once out of Afghanistan, there is not going to be a solid commitment in revisiting its “project” and once again Pakistan will be alone to face the entire brunt. Regardless of these genuine reservations, facing election year, President Trump wants a successfully executed agreement to show back home to the voters and taxpayers.

To market the agreement successful, Taliban were overnight projected as pragmatic actors, who believed in inclusivity, trust building, ending violence and continued killings, consensus building amongst the various Afghan factions, protection and promotion of human rights and above all that of women, even granting them the freedom and right to education as well as work. The Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajudin Haqqani’s Feb 20th carefully worded opinion piece in the New York Time, taken as an official statement by their leadership, in a very congenial and conciliatory tone covers all of these aspects. The main condition posed was primarily the withdrawal of foreign forces led by the United States. He wrote:

The long war has exacted a terrible cost from everyone. We thought it unwise to dismiss any potential opportunity for peace no matter how meager the prospects of its success. For more than four decades, precious Afghan lives have been lost every day. Everyone has lost somebody they loved. Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop. We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves.

Taking a cue, the U.S. met and signed interestingly not one but two agreements in Doha on February 29th, a memorable date that will not happen for another four years. Intra-Afghan dialogue, nation-wide ceasefire, peace and inclusivity, prisoner swap and better governance as well as withdrawal of foreign forces were the main agenda points. However, the fact that not one but two exclusive agreements were signed, one with the Afghan government and the other with the Taliban speaks volumes of the clear division, deep distrust and lack of consensus between the two main Afghan stakeholders. This is in contrast to the earlier calls for consensus and unity. After a brief seven day let up in violence, there has been a steady increase in Taliban activities. On March 28th, Badakhshan’s Yumgan district fell to the Taliban, much to the consternation of Kabul government. Even when President Ghani tried to drag his feet on the prisoners’ swapping, he was persuaded by the U.S. to reconsider.

The Doha agreement places too much onus on the ever fractious Afghan stakeholders to dialogue and negotiate peace, the likelihood of its success being very minimal. As president Ghani took oath, Kabul was rocked by bomb blasts, the killing of Sikh worshipers at their gurdawara by an Indian origin ISIS militant, are a clear indication that all would not be well for Kabul in coming days, but the U.S. remains complacent, because by virtue of the agreement, its troops are not in the direct line of fire for the moment. With the heat and fury directed at the Kabul government, Trump administration characteristically does not care.

The Taliban, in the end, are the main beneficiary of this entire “leap” of faith. Endowed with the strongest militia, they maintain a solid control over the territory they hold, and the recent attacks show them gaining more physical ground. The Afghan security forces alone remain inept and underpowered to wage a strong resistance against them. Furthermore, the Doha agreement has granted to the Taliban what they could not achieve for the last two decades – legitimized and mainstreamed them as frontline stakeholders, proxies against budding threats such as ISIS as well as keeping Al Qaeda in check and lastly a guarantor of an honorable and safe exit for the remaining U.S. troops. What happens to Afghanistan, would no longer be Trump’s problem, so long as it guarantees his re-election.

Dr. Salma Malik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Defence & Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.