While the catastrophic consequences of failing to establish a lasting peace in Afghanistan loom larger than any time before, it seems that the US has started to reformulate its strategy amid criticism from opposition Republicans that the Democratic commander in chief was beating a hasty and risky retreat. The US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during his first visit to Afghanistan that the US was considering slowing its military withdrawal by keeping larger troops than planned because the new Afghan government was proving to be more reliable partner. He also said at a news conference with Ghani that President Obama had plans to discuss a range of options for U.S. military withdrawal when Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visits the White House in March.
A more active and larger US military presence in Afghanistan will not only demoralize the terrorists, but will also help Afghanistan and Pakistan deal with insurgency on both sides, in an effective manner. This presence will also provide some guarantee towards the fulfillment of the commitments made by Pakistan and Afghanistan aimed at improving their relations.
The move by President Ghani to enter into direct talks with the Pakistan Army Chief, which did not go well with some in Afghanistan, was hailed by the international community as a clever and honest step towards building trust. Pakistan on its part reciprocated this goodwill gesture through some visits by Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif and ISI Chief Gen. Rizwan Akhtar. As a result of these positive developments, signs of improvement in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are more visible.
Factors such as brutal attacks by the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the realization of the gravity of the threat posed by the extremist ideology in the region have contributed in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan closer. These challenges have also prompted China, which has growing concerns about the training of extremist Chinese Muslims and their infiltration to China, to take part in the process by supporting Kabul-Taliban reconciliation while representatives of Afghan Taliban have visited Beijing. This is in addition to the role Afghanistan can play as a land bridge between Pakistan and Central Asian countries, which can help Pakistan increase its export and business, and import the energy that it seriously needs.
In his address on National Teacher’s Day in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani referred to Taliban and militant groups as “Political Opposition” while Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in a meeting with the commanders of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police has asked the government to clearly define the terms “enemy” and “friend” fearing the continuation of uncertainty in dealing with insurgents and their supporters. These statements may resonate with the change in US’s reclassification of Taliban from “a terrorist group” to “an armed insurgency”. This policy shift has resulted in separate but coordinated US backed peace initiatives with Taliban by the UAE, Qatar, Turkey and Pakistan.
Fears and concerns
The changes come at a price, and this is no exception. Pakistan and Afghanistan need to be ready to give necessary concessions to make the process succeed. They also need to deal with the internal pressures and opposition from some powerful quarters.
Although recent developments show that Islamabad is helping Kabul to hold talks with the Afghan Taliban but these efforts would be judged by the outcome. The leadership of the Taliban still continue to make the same maximalist demands such as foreign troops withdrawal and changing the Afghan constitution.
Some even believe that Pakistan has not yet done much to reciprocate the goodwill initiatives of Afghanistan. While President Ghani has been under immense pressure of being accused of making a clandestine deal with Pakistan without taking the Afghan people into confidence, Afghanistan did not stop short of fulfilling its commitments. He has been quoted saying that he does not want to deal with the matter through public diplomacy.
This situation has led some analysts to fear the exploitation of loopholes of the deal by Pakistan and in order to give elements from Taliban and Hekmatyar Group some share in the government in Kabul without ending insurgency.
Mr. Ghani is losing popularity based on the fact that he is giving too much away including suspension of a 400 million dollar tank and aircraft refurbishing plant funded by India, agreeing to greater military cooperation with Pakistan and fighting Pakistani Taliban in Kunar Province of Afghanistan without gaining anything in return.
Moreover, as a result of operations against militants in Waziristan, the security challenges of Afghanistan have multiplied as terrorists are being pushed into Afghanistan.
While some Afghan and Western officials have been quoted blaming the military junta as well as some powerful political and religious parties in Pakistan for supporting insurgency in Afghanistan, it is now time for Pakistan to go beyond its conventional rhetoric. As the influence of such networks remains intact with the inner circles of pro-Taliban (and Al-Qaeda) groups, the situation gets more complicated for Afghanistan to aspire for a brighter future.
Islamic State (IS) as common threat
These developments take place when militants of Islamic State (IS) are making inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda and Taliban may have some rivalries with IS, but the proximity between their ideologies, goals and methodologies and tactics will bring them all under the black flag of IS.
Adding fuel to the fire, the speedy growth of the Islamic State in Afghanistan has filled some insurgents particularly those unwilling to join the peace deal, with hope and energy to win the war. The IS has recently announced its expansion into the land of Khorasan which mainly refers to Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, many among the Taliban and Al-Qaeda either have pledged to IS openly or clandestinely or plan to do so, though there have been reports of clashes between Taliban fighters and IS militants. In southern Zabul and Helmand provinces Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Taliban commander who was recently killed, was actively recruiting fighters for IS while in Kunar and Farah provinces the Group has established training camps. Similarly Afghan government officials reported about the activities of IS militants in Ghazni and Kunduz provinces in central and northern Afghanistan.
Police Chief of Kunduz Province has confirmed that 70 IS militants were operating in the province and planned to expand their activities to other provinces. Some 30 members of Hazara ethnic community have recently been abducted on Kabul-Kandahar highway by the gunmen believed to be IS militants wearing black clothing and black masks.
A spokesman of the Islamic State, in an audio tape published on January 26, 2015 announced the appointment of Hafez Saeed Khan a former Commander of the Pakistani Taliban (Tahreek Taliban Pakistan) as the “governor” of Khorasan province and Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadi a former senior Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan as the deputy governor. The Islamic States in Khorasan has claimed that the group has deployed over 10000 troops on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This poses a common threat to both the countries. They have to cooperate and stand together against the enemy. In the meantime, in order to overcome this security and ideological threat, a regional cooperation which should also include China, Central Asian countries and Gulf States, and Iran is of paramount importance.
The rapid expansion of Islamic State in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, casts serious doubt over the relevance of any peace deal with the Taliban. If not pre-empted well in advance, the Islamic State has the potential to challenge peace initiatives by take the insurgency in Afghanistan to a higher level.