x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

US can only gain in Afghanistan by not vilifying Pakistan

Peace in Afghanistan is possible, but the US will not achieve it by demonising Pakistan while backing the corrupt puppet regime in Kabul.

The Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan this month started with promise but, predictably, ended with a whimper. Beyond its encouraging title - Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia - the summit was seen as a failure by many. As former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar noted, the conference was always "bound to crash land".

Pessimism is understandable after a decade of combat, but is it fair? Not entirely.

True, the conference in Istanbul on November 2 failed to chalk up any notable successes. Afghanistan's neighbours, led by Pakistan, opposed the US proposal of retaining bases and a presence in Afghanistan post-2014. Indeed, agreement was absent on nearly all counts.

But it is nonetheless premature to pass judgment since achievements - or lack thereof - can only be judged on what transpired behind the scenes. And those deals will not become public for some time to come.

Considering recent developments in the region it was remarkable the sides sat down at all.

Inherent in Afghan security is security within Pakistan's border region. But on this issue, the US and Pakistan have failed to find common ground, with relations growing so frosty some speculated that open war was possible. Pakistan has resisted US demands to conduct military operations in North Waziristan, a region that is destabilising for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Little on this front was settled in Istanbul.

Nor was this the only casualty of the summit. As Mr Bhadrakumar noted afterwards, solutions proposed for Afghanistan have always failed to consider the needs of Afghans. On the surface at least, Istanbul was no exception.

"Instead of focusing on the pivotal issue of a viable Afghan national reconciliation, how to set up such a process and how to secure it as Afghan-led and genuinely Afghan-owned, the masterminds of the conference - the United States in particular - loaded it with geopolitics," he wrote.

"The conference was burdened with an ambitious agenda of imposing on the region under western leadership a mechanism to mediate in a host of intra-regional disputes and differences which are, arguably, tangential issues that could have a bearing on Afghanistan's stabilisation but are not the greatest concern today."

This has been the most obvious error in the US approach to Afghanistan from the outset. Instead of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned leadership in Kabul, Washington wanted a puppet government. It now has one in the administration of Hamid Karzai.

All of this said, the US and Afghanistan still have an opportunity to build on Istanbul's progress. The question now, and one that will be asked at the next conference in Bonn, Germany, in December, is where do we go from here?

It seems that the US is beginning to realise the futility of continuing to pursue its current policy of top-down rather than bottom-up approaches, despite the division of views within its administration.

Pakistan has expressed a willingness to facilitate this process, but with a few caveats that are worth repeating. From Islamabad's view, success will depend on the following: that all Afghan factions be included in any decision on Afghanistan's future; that talks be initiated unconditionally (it is unreasonable, for instance, to expect that self-described Afghan freedom fighters will to lay down their arms and accept the US-tailored constitution before beginning negotiations); and that the US should cease further military operations before negotiations can commence.

Pakistan, for too long, has been blamed by the West for facilitating terrorism and instability in Afghanistan. Instead, Washington should come to view Pakistan has having true insight into what drives the Afghan Taliban, and how to counter the view that they are struggling against a foreign occupation.

Instead, the US has vilified Pakistan and supported a corrupt and incompetent administration in Kabul for too long. Consequently, support for the Taliban among Afghans has increased incrementally.

If the US wants peace in Afghanistan the ball is now firmly in the US's court. Demonising Pakistan won't help, nor will continuing on a confrontational course while seeking to negotiate with preconditions that are unacceptable to the Afghans. This approach can only lead the US ever deeper into a quagmire.

There was little overt indication at the summit Istanbul this month that Washington understands this. Time is running out for the message to be received.


Brig Gen Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer