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Shifting sands of Afghan conflict

American Congress has been rash in blocking the subsidized sale of eight F-16s, to the Pakistan Air Force. F-16 has been the weapon systems of first choice to fight the terrorists in otherwise inhospitable and inaccessible terrain. Ability of this aircraft to deliver precision munitions have been a major under writer for employing proportionate power, thus keeping the collateral damage—loss of lives of non-combatant and damage/destruction of civilian structures and properties  to the minimum. While F-16s have never been used against India, this has been cited as a reason for blocking the sale. Ironically the Indian campaign to block this sale was spearheaded by Pakistan’s former ambassador to India—Hussain Haqqani.

Richard Olson, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had stated in his testimony before the sub-committee on foreign affairs that the request of $743.2 million in security and civilian funds for Pakistan in 2016-17 struck the appropriate balance between long-term development and strategic military-to-military cooperation, both of which is in America’s national security interest particularly in the region. “The requested resources remain crucial to advancing cooperation on core areas that matter to us: bolstering Pakistan’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations…” The deal, however, has not been scrapped entirely and can still go through as long as Pakistan arranges to pay the full price of the jets, valued at over $700 million. Previously, Islamabad was supposed to pay only $270 million while the Barack Obama-led administration was to pay $430 million in subsidy through the US foreign military financing budget. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker allowed Washington to proceed with the deal, but said he would not approve using US funds to pay for the planes. Administration can find a workaround to offset the impact sub committee’s decision on Pakistan.

Under the dry circumstances a big supportive push for Afghan peace process came from the Chinese President Beijing—President Xi Jinping. While addressing the opening ceremony of fifth foreign ministers’ meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) on April 28, he assured that his country will play pro-active role for the success of peace process in Afghanistan and to seek more international support for the country’s reconstruction. President Xi further said, China supports an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” inclusive political reconciliation process, hopes the country can realize peace, stability and development at an early date.

Since Karzai era, sinking economy, perpetuating corruption and incompetent security agencies have marred Afghanistan’s domestic environment. No wonders the fault lines that prompt Afghan leadership towards blaming Pakistan for everything that could go wrong in Afghanistan are snowballing.  At a time when President Ashraf Ghani should be unveiling a viable political framework for talks with Afghan Taliban, he has taken a yet harsher stance against Pakistan and the Taliban that could further complicate the peace process. Last month, the Taliban had refused to sit face-to-face with the government in Kabul under the quadrilateral process comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States. Following the refusal, President Ghani has been under pressure to change his policy on peace and reconciliation with the militant group. In shear frustration, he is treading the path that was followed by his predecessor, which bore no fruit. The silver lining is that the back channel contacts to convince the Taliban to restart the peace process are still functional.

After the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack outside a building of the National Directorate for Security (NDS) in Kabul on April 19 that killed 64 people and injured more than 300 others, Ghani addressed the joint session of Afghan parliament. He retraced from ongoing attempts to engage Taliban in peace talks. He also articulated to execute enemies of state and undertake preparations for an extended war. Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan faced a terrorist enemy led by Taliban “slaves” in Pakistan. He branded the insurgents as criminals, fighting the legitimate government.

Commenting on Afghan government’s claim that Pakistan supported the group that carried out the attack, the director of the State Department’s Press Office, Elizabeth Trudeau said: “We have consistently expressed our concerns at the highest level of the government of Pakistan about their continued tolerance for Afghan Taliban groups such as the Haqqani network operating from Pakistani soil… And we did again — after this week’s attack”.

Over a period of time a powerful lobby has evolved in Afghanistan whose stakes are better served if the country remains instable. Ashraf Ghani, otherwise a prudent leader is often swayed by this lobby. Who would know better than him the dynamics of war economy, and power of the interest groups thrown-up by such economies. However, he needs to know more about the political options exercised by other countries which came out of similar turmoil that bedevils today’s Afghanistan.

While the international community is making an all-out effort to bring Taliban back to the negotiation table, especially through the good offices of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), Ashraf Ghani panics on every bomb blast and every takeover attempt of peripheral middle order urban centre by Taliban.  “Will no longer seek Pakistan’s help in peace talks” Afghan president retorted recently. Surprisingly Ghani wants Pakistan to battle Taliban than try to bring them into peace talks.  Pakistan has repeatedly made it clear that it has limited influence over Taliban.

Afghan Taliban have confirmed that their delegation has visited Pakistan for discussing issues pertaining to refugees, the release of a senior leader and other prisoners. A three-member delegation from the Afghan Taliban’s political office in Qatar arrived in Islamabad on April 25 to discuss the restarting of peace talks with Kabul. Afghan officials in Kabul had also stated they were aware of the visit but that no meeting with the Taliban delegation in Pakistan was held. Some Pakistani officials had earlier stated that a meeting between the Taliban and the representatives of the Afghan government was scheduled in Islamabad on April 27; however, Afghan diplomatic sources said, “Kabul is not in the loop about the visit.” It is not certain whether this delegation met the representatives of Kabul government or other QCG members; in all probability they did.

Ghani has angrily denounced Pakistan for failing to rein in the Taliban. He warned that he would lodge a complaint in the UN Security Council against Pakistan if the country did not take action against the Taliban leaders based on in its soil. There was no admission of security and intelligence failure; not only on the part of Afghan security agencies but also the US/NATO forces. None out of the two partners seemed embarrassed at the fiasco. Afghan conflicts shifting sands have never been so treacherous.

There is need for paradigm shift if the Afghan peace process is to take a sustainable trajectory, the QCG should convince itself that the Afghan Taliban are no more an affiliate of the al Qaeda, but represent a home grown  Afghan nationalist movement. Blaming Pakistan for the Afghan rulers’ failure to either defeat the Taliban in the battlefield or to coax them to come over to their side is not likely to help anyone. Pakistan is in no position to unilaterally engage Haqqanis militarily and succeed. It cannot afford to open a new front with the entity that so far poses no threat to it militarily. As Haqqanis are an integral part of the Taliban under Mullah Akhtar Mansur, any attempt to engage them by the QCG either militarily or for negotiation would be a non-starter. Likewise, attempt to isolate Pakistan diplomatically is going to take nobody anywhere. For Afghanistan and the US piling public pressure on Pakistan at the moment appears to be the preferred tactic — far removed from the broader strategic needs of the region.

 

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Is the new push for Afghan peace genuine?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during an unannounced visit to Kabul on July 09 that there was “now hope” for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. “An element of the progress is the capacity that we now have to believe that there is now hope,” Pompeo told a press conference. “Many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily. That’s very deeply connected to President Trump’s strategy… Make no mistake, there’s still a great deal of work to do”, he added. However, recent BBC study reveals that Taliban are openly active in 70 per cent of Afghanistan; Afghan government controls 122 districts, or about 30 per cent of the country. Yet, it does not mean that government controlled territories are free from Taliban attacks. “Kabul and other major cities, for example, suffered major attacks – launched from adjacent areas, or by sleeper cells,” the report said. When asked about the BBC’s study, the Pentagon did not comment directly, but pointed to the latest figures by the NATO-led coalition, asserting that about 56 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory was under Afghan government control or influence. The study quoted a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani playing down the findings. The BBC study also said Islamic State had a presence in 30 districts, but noted it did not fully control any of them. Earlier Taliban had refused the government’s request to extend their three-day Eid ceasefire, launching fresh attacks that have seen scores killed or injured. Resurgence of insider attacks after almost a year’s gap also belies Pompeo’s claims. President Ashraf Ghani thanked Pompeo for US support, hailing Trump’s strategy as a “game changer” in the conflict. Pompeo said while the United States would have an “important” role in peace talks, the process must be Afghan-led. Taliban’s key demands for engaging in talks has been the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, but observers say they now appear amenable to a timetable for their pull-out. However, Taliban have rejected the latest peace talks offer. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Taliban “are not interested in talks while foreign troops are still on Afghan soil.” Mujahid also repeated long-standing Taliban claims that Afghan government officials are “puppets. Renewed violence and the Taliban’s recent vow to continue their fight has dampened hopes that the truce would provide a clear path to peace talks. Ambassador Alice G Wells, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, visits Islamabad [and Kabul] so frequently that Pakistan’s foreign office might be thinking of offering her complimentary accommodation for setting up Islamabad camp office! Beyond routines Wells has a special assignment: to hold Taliban by their throat and present them to President Ashraf Ghani, as soon as possible. Ghani already has an America dictated power sharing draft agreement in his pocket. And American support for granting him blanket clearance for rigging his second term election is contingent upon making reasonable performance on this track. Both Afghanistan and the US want to reach some kind of deal with the Taliban before the parliamentary elections due later this year. Hence Wells’ urgency! Arduous challenge for Alice is that Taliban insist on talking directly to the US, as they think that present status of Afghanistan is of a country under American occupation. So they want to engage with the power that be—ostensibly, logical thinking. With focus on Taliban, Wells is putting in strenuous effort to steer the Pak-US relationship clear of mines laid by President Donal Trump. During her latest visit, she reiterated that Pak-US relationship is important and the US would like to carry it forward. Despite Trump sown hiccups, these bilateral relations are still presenting a functional façade. Pakistan is confident that Taliban could be brought to the negotiating table after the success of recent short ceasefire on Eid. However, it feels that bringing Taliban to negotiating point is not the sole responsibility of Pakistan, but is a shared errand. In a parallel development, during several rounds of discussions between Pakistani and Afghan officials, both sides have worked out a roadmap on how to invite Taliban to join the political process. Afghan President has confirmed that Pakistan and Afghanistan have made considerable progress on how to achieve peace in Afghanistan. This however does not match ground realities. Against this backdrop, Wells’ recent visit to Kabul and Islamabad was significant. While in Kabul, she stated that American leadership desires decisive moves in the peace talks. Wells said there was widespread support for peace, underlined by scenes of unarmed fighters mingling with government troops and civilians on the streets of Afghan cities during Eid festival. Wells said that Taliban’s failure to engage in talks to end Afghanistan’s nearly 17-year old conflict was ‘unacceptable’: “I think it creates this impulse for everyone to renew their efforts to find a negotiated political solution. “Increasingly I think it’s becoming simply unacceptable for the Taliban not to negotiate”— a wishful assumption. Taliban soon responded by multiple attacks killing scores of people in Jalalabad and elsewhere. Wells also called on Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Views were exchanged on issues of mutual interest, regional security and cooperation between both the countries, the Inter-Services Public Relations said in a statement. She “commended the sacrifices and resilience of the people and armed forces of Pakistan and appreciated the role Pakistan Army has played in battling the scourge of terrorism”. Both agreed on continued engagement at multiple levels. Trump has suspended military and civil sector aid to Pakistan since the beginning of this year alongside holding back the already paid for military hardware. America is also defaulting on arears of Coalition Support Fund, amount that America owes to Pakistan that latter has already spent on account of logistical services provided to the US. Finance Minister, Dr Shamshad Akhtar also held a meeting with Wells. They discussed the current state of Pak-US relations with particular focus on economic cooperation. Finance Minister said that such bilateral visits enhance understanding of each other’s point of view on important issues. The Minister also briefed Alice Wells about Pakistan’s participation in the recently concluded FATF meeting. America had gone out of the way to have Pakistan placed on FATF grey list to the extent of circumventing the FTAF operating procedures. Wells said that since the Afghan government and United States were willing to start talking without preconditions, the onus was now on the Taliban to respond— once again logic stands on its head. “Right now it’s the Taliban leaders… who aren’t residing in Afghanistan, who are the obstacle to a negotiated political settlement,” Wells said. She forgot to account for those Taliban controlling over 70 percent of Afghan territories. Previous meaningful peace initiatives were deliberately scuttled by the US, one has to see how the current one proceeds! Only the forward movement of peace process will reflect on America’s sincerity of purpose, which is hard to discern—at least for now.

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