Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 3 July 2020

Ghani must not blow this rare chance of peace

Peace talks with the Taliban and major stakeholders are at a delicate point, writes Shaukat Qadir
Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif addresses internally displaced Pakistani civilians fleeing a military operation against Taliban militants in North Waziristan (AFP PHOTO / KARIM ULLAH)
Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif addresses internally displaced Pakistani civilians fleeing a military operation against Taliban militants in North Waziristan (AFP PHOTO / KARIM ULLAH)

Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have been on for many months but without any discernible progress. This made for great frustration in Kabul because of dissidents within Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s government seizing the chance to blame Pakistan. Relations between the two countries once again began to sour.

Then Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, stepped in, determined to make things happen. From what I hear, he finally resorted to the “or else” option. The result was that Mullah Omar personally gave his blessings to the July 7 Murree round of talks. It was a significant advance in the process and also quashed rumours that he was dead.

Even more important, the Haqqani network was also represented in Murree, something that I have long argued for. Though the militant group has been blamed for several high profile attacks against western, Indian and government targets in Afghanistan, its leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was formerly a US ally and remains a key player in Afghanistan.

Along with the Haqqanis and the US, China too was represented at the Murree talks.

Finally, peace has a genuine chance.

The first round of talks ended on a note of cautious optimism and with plans to meet again at a mutually agreed date some time after Eid. Interestingly, at a press conference after the talks, the Afghan spokesman did not reply to a journalist’s query about splinter Taliban groups.

The core problem is becoming increasingly obvious. As the Afghan Taliban splinter, they pose less of a threat, which puts Mullah Omar in a weaker negotiating position vis-à-vis the Afghan government. This, in turn, contributes to a rise in the number of dissident Taliban and the move by hardliners to join ISIL.

Judging by the increasing number of ISIL leaders targeted by drone strikes, it seems that it is very active in Kunar in northeastern Afghanistan. This is where the Haqqani network comes in. As I have argued before, Jalaluddin Haqqani may be the only one who could cut ISIL’s logistical lifeline because his tribe, the Zadrun, dominates the region around Kabul.

But ISIL’s rise is not the only threat to Afghanistan’s stability. There are others who remain locked in a battle for political power and, in the process, seeking to ensure that Mr Ghani, his government and his initiatives fail.

It is worth noting that Mr Ghani started his tenure with bold moves, despite opposition from his predecessor Hamid Karzai and his supporters. Each success consolidated Mr Ghani’s position but every setback has given Mr Karzai the opportunity he was seeking. As the British newspaper The Guardian has written, Afghanistan’s former president continues to play a role in public affairs, one that can only be a problem considering that Mr Ghani has decided to plough his own course.

It is significant that two long-time rivals – Atta Muhammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province and first vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum – joined hands. The alliance is ostensibly meant to fight insurgency and deny the Taliban entry to northern Afghanistan. But, the success of any security alliance that is not enabled or initiated by Mr Ghani will come at his expense.

The truth is that Mr Ghani still has a fantastic chance of success as president of an Afghanistan where international combat operations have officially ended and domestic security forces are doing a reasonable job of facing down challenges. However, to succeed, Mr Ghani must demonstrate the boldness and courage of conviction with which he started. Or else he must return to the Karzai doctrine of governance.

The choice is clear. Either Mr Ghani must purge his team of any remaining Karzai adherents or convert them to his way of thinking. The alternative would be to accept Mr Karzai as his political mentor.

There is a military maxim that runs as follows: “Faced with a stronger and well-entrenched opponent, conventional tactics will never succeed. Success depends entirely on a well thought out strategy where the degree and speed of the operation and the inherent well-considered risk, is directly proportional to its success.”

I think it is applicable in these circumstances. It would be a pity if this priceless opportunity for peace in Afghanistan is squandered by the one person who is capable of succeeding.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer

Updated: July 19, 2015 04:00 AM

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