As widely anticipated, US President Barack Obama announced recently that the US has revised its plan to withdraw 5,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. At a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, after their meeting in Washington, Obama observed that he has changed his plan “so we don’t have to respond in an emergency because terrorist activities are being launched out of Afghanistan”. Ghani told the press conference that the extension would allow the Afghan military to better prepare for the total withdrawal of US forces. A complete withdrawal of American troops is scheduled for the end of 2016. The decision to extend the presence of all 9,800 troops through 2015 has been caused by a number of factors.
While the Afghan military may have demonstrated its capability and professionalism in some operations, it is yet to give an impressive performance in a long series of encounters with the resistance forces. The real test of its competency will come as attacks intensify in the coming months with weather conditions improving, making it easier for the resistance forces to launch their assaults. The matter of desertions from the Afghan Army has not been overcome. From September 2013 to October 2014, 40,000 troops left its ranks — an astounding number considering that extreme poverty and unemployment are major worries in a country devastated by conflict for over three decades. The danger of the Islamic State (IS) penetrating the country is also causing concern both in Kabul and in Washington. There is, however, no credible evidence to support the presumption that the IS would make any meaningful headway in Afghanistan, the announcement of a few activists to have joined the outfit notwithstanding. Afghans would think 10 times before joining organisations like the IS, operating thousands of miles away and with a history of espousing an almost alien radical ideology. But the reversal of the withdrawal plan may have other deeper implications. The current regime in Kabul is seriously endeavouring to open dialogue with the resistance forces. It appears that a lot of preparatory work has been done in this regard. Pakistan is not only supporting the dialogue process but also has considerable involvement in initiating it, with the US also endorsing the proposal.
There is a paradox, though. On the one hand, the resistance is being induced to sit for negotiations, and on the other, the US is being advised to delay the pullout of its forces. Considering that the key demand of the resistance movement is a complete pullout of all foreign forces, it remains to be seen how the talks initiative will pan out. If at all the resistance forces agree to conduct a meaningful dialogue, they would want iron-clad guarantees that the withdrawal time frame would be uppermost on the agenda. In all probability, the resistance would agree to full-scale open talks only when the time frame issue has been resolved in secret negotiations.
According to some unconfirmed media reports, a few positions in the Afghan government may have been offered to the resistance forces as a quid pro quo. However, the fact remains that the conflict in Afghanistan is not about a few positions in government. It is not about the Constitution or the empowerment of the Pakhtuns. The conflict owes its genesis to the occupation of the country that was once being ruled by the resistance forces. In other words, it is about the presence of foreign forces and it is about the people of Afghanistan determining their own destiny and constructing an edifice of governance that reflects their aspirations without any external interference. The Afghans have to develop a broad consensus on the contours of their institutions and their government structures. Afghanistan’s Constitution and its parliament are sacrosanct but the unity and integrity of the country is more sacrosanct. All endeavours must be made to accomplish the goal of preserving Afghanistan’s unity and bringing peace.
Pakistan and Iran have a role to play in this regard. But Afghans alone would formulate and implement their internal and external policies. Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence have to be recognised. Old, outdated policies of attempting to foster ‘strategic depth’, etc. have to be discarded. Opportunities for socioeconomic emancipation that stem from cooperation, cultural and trade relations are unlimited if peace ensues. Vision, foresight and recognition of ground realities should guide regional governments in responding to the situation in Afghanistan while never losing sight of the aspirations of the tormented Afghan people.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 11th, 2015.