Afghanistan is passing through unfortunate times. Three streams of fragile transition are in progress; all in indecent haste to meet the 2014 timeline. These are in security, political and economic domains.
Though political transition holds the key to success, it is the patchiest of all. The transfer of power to President Hamid Karzai’s successor having enough charisma and credibility to hold the country together will determine the fate of the remaining two transitions.
Most of the stakeholders related to these transitions are fixated to their oft-stated positions; in military jargon, they are in a state of “running on the spot.” The ongoing tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan is also an umpteenth replay of a beaten track.
Afghanistan has expressed grave concern at what it called “Pakistani military’s unilateral construction and physical reinforcement activities” along the border. The Afghan officials have also claimed that the Pakistani forces fired nearly 50 rockets into the province of Kunar on March 25 and 26. In return, the Afghan Foreign Ministry cancelled a planned trip to Pakistan by the Afghan army for joint exercises.
Pakistan has described Kabul’s outburst as an “over-reaction” to a local issue. Its Foreign Ministry clarified that no rocket or artillery shells have been fired in the recent days. Pakistan’s troops merely returned small arms fire at specific directions from where the militants fired at Pakistani border posts.
The Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has once again reiterated Pakistan’s stance and desire for a peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan, and the need for a successful “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process”. His remarks came during a recent meeting he had with General Joseph F. Dunford, the Nato/Isaf Commander in Afghanistan. General Kayani urged General Dunford to “help Pakistan check cross-border attacks launched from inside Afghanistan”.
To facilitate solution to the Afghan conflict, Pakistan is playing an active role at the regional level as well. On April 3, Pakistan participated in the trilateral China, Russia and Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan in Beijing. The trio agreed to support the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in playing a greater role on the Afghanistan issue.
A day earlier, China and Pakistan too held bilateral consultation on the war-torn country. The two sides agreed that the international community should create favourable conditions for reconciliation, respecting its history, cultural traditions, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
As regards political transition, the Afghan government has been striving hard to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. During his recent visit to Kabul, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated “the US call for the Taliban to enter into talks and a wider political process”. He also issued a veiled threat if they did not oblige by saying that “President Barack Obama is yet to say how many US troops will remain in the country after 2014.”
Any future peace talks still face numerous hurdles before they could begin, including confusion over who would represent the Taliban and Karzai’s insistence that his appointees be at the centre of the negotiations. He has also repeatedly stressed the need to bring Pakistan into such a negotiation process.
Kabul and Doha have come to an agreement on the political office for the Taliban in Qatar after President Karzai’s visit there. “One of the details of this agreement was that the opposition should use this office only for peace talks and not any other political purpose,” said Afghanistan’s High Peace Council member Maulvi Shafiullah Noorestani.
“Another part of the agreement is that those Taliban members, who are ready for the peace talks, should be granted immunity and any suspension should be removed…....the office will be opened by the High Peace Council,” he added. However, analysts doubt whether the Doha office would make any difference. National Coalition leader Abdullah Abdullah said that he did not believe anything was really achieved by Karzai’s visit to Qatar.
Moreover, the Taliban refused to have direct contact with him. “The opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is not related to Karzai; it is a matter between the Taliban and the Qatar government,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stated.
Pakistan has all along expressed its support for the establishment of a Taliban political office in Doha and has proposed that they should be encouraged to launch their political platforms. The UN has welcomed Karzai’s visit to Qatar and called upon the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
On the economic front, President Karzai met with Qatari investors and encouraged them to invest in the country. He maintained: “The future of Afghanistan is guaranteed because our relations have expanded with America and other countries such as China, India and Russia…….Afghanistan has good opportunities and resources that we can share with you.”
In the context of drawdown, the US Special Operations Forces have handed over their base in Wardak to the Afghan Special Forces. “As we pledged, our forces have transitioned Nirkh district to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and they have now assumed full responsibility for security in this key district,” said General Dunford. “The rest of Wardak will continue to transition over time as the Afghan forces continue to grow in capability and capacity,” he added.
Against this backdrop, a major operation to airlift thousands of tonnes of military equipment from Afghanistan has begun. The British troops’ presence will be almost halved by the end of this year: from 8,000 to 5,200. At Camp Bastion, the main operating base in Helmand that had grown to the size of a town, there are now expanses of dust where canvas villages once stood.
Lieutenant General Nick Carter, Deputy Chief of Nato/Isaf, said: “The transition to Afghan control is going well.......Afghan confidence is our centre of gravity at every level. If the Afghans can look back over the summer and say 'we managed that' with only limited help from the Isaf, then I think that will give them a really good platform for managing the political transition that has to follow in 2014.” However, of the 26 ANSF brigades, only five have reached the standard of being fully independent.
In addition, the UK's acting Ambassador in Kabul, Nic Hailey, said: "We all talk about 2014 as the flagship date. But actually by end of 2013, we will know quite a lot about what 2014 will look like. We will know how the ANSF has coped through a fighting season in which they are in the lead."
As a final word, not even one of the Taliban leaders worth his salt is likely to agree to an open-ended stay of the foreign troops in Afghanistan and, that too, with blanket immunity. They are weighing their options and would prefer not to disrupt the process.
They would rather negotiate with the new President in Kabul once the occupation forces have left. In all probability, there would be residual insurgency in the post-2014 timeframe and the large area of Afghanistan will continue to be outside the ANSF control for an indefinite period of time.