Turning point

Positive AfPak Stirrings Engender Hope

Positive stirrings bring hope of new beginnings. A brief visit to Kabul suggests that Afghanistan may be at a turning point. There was a suicide attack on Kabul airport the day we were to fly there and another bombing in a provincial city. Some 13 militants were killed and no security force personnel lost life  indicating a level of training and ability to confront terror that is reassuring as the US/ISAF forces wind down and largely pull out of combat operations by 2014.

The local reaction to this and to attack on Supreme Court staff was one of disgust and scorn at the mindless killing of innocents, not fear. Security is extremely tight, especially around government buildings, the diplomatic quarters and hotels, all of which offer high-value targets. The Indian Embassy and Chancery are like fortresses but the officials and security staff are in fine fettle.

The nation’s Upper Chamber was in session and the trend of discussion favoured strengthening the process of reconciliation with the Taliban, even while combating cross-border espionage and intrusion from  Pakistan. The previous day, President Hamid Karzai, close on his visit to India, had spoken at the 10th US-Islamic summit in Doha where he detailed the progress being made by his country.

But at the heart of his address was a call to the US and the West to introspect on whether an unintended consequence of the war on terror had not in fact been to increase Islamic radicalism in the name of fighting it. Terror sanctuaries had been left untouched - a scarcely-veiled reference to Pakistan- and America’s double standards on Palestine -had alienated Muslim opinion worldwide. 

And now comes the Taliban announcement of its willingness to seek peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and to open talks with the Afghan High Peace Council set up by Karzai in 2010. Tragically the Council’s head, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, a respected religious scholar, former President and a minority Tadjik leader well suited to bridge the Afghan ethnic divide, was assassinated last year. Though Rabbani’s loss was a major setback, the latest turnaround restores the salience of the HPC which is due to meet the Taliban in Qatar and will thereafter repatriate the peace process to Afghanistan.

Three significant points need to be noted. The Taliban initiative follows a firm announcement of the US/International Security Assistance Force withdrawal. Since the Taliban’s declared objective was a nationalist determination to fight the foreign invader - first the Soviets and now the US-led coalition – a major cause of action is in process of being ended. To this extent, it was always the case that the US was as much part of the problem in Afghanistan as of the intended solution. The Taliban’s call for talks was accompanied by the statement that its political and military goals are strictly limited to Afghanistan and it wishes no harm to other countries (such as the US). This sharply differentiates the nationalist Taliban from the ideologically motivated al Qaida, which has a crusading radical-Islamic agenda. 

Move forward

Unfortunately, the Taliban overreached itself by designating its new contact office in Doha as the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, replete with the Taliban flag. It was also enraged by the US opening talks with the Taliban in Qatar, protesting that the peace process must be led by the Afghan Government. Karzai has angrily called off talks with both the US and Taliban. Hopefully, the spat will be defused and negotiations move forward. 

Winning over the Taliban could prove a decisive factor in shaping unfolding events and would give peace and reconciliation a real chance within a purely Afghan framework. For this to work, certain other things are necessary. The US and West should not seek to make Afghanistan an “ally” or strategic asset with bases from which to seek to influence events in Iran and Central Asia.

Afghanistan’s future lies in being neutral and becoming a hub for trade and commerce while fostering its own opening up and industrialisation by inviting global investments based on its iron ore, copper and other mineral wealth (in which India and China are already involved) and by returning to its historic role as a crossroads of Asia, criss-crossed by highways, pipelines and power transmission lines. TAPI, or a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, has long been mooted, with extensions further afield at both ends.  

Perhaps even more importantly, Pakistan should abjure its search for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan to combat India, which it has obsessively portrayed as a vicious and permanent enemy to its own grief. The Haqqani network, with legs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, may be willing to join the peace process and Rawalpindi should encourage it to do so.

 India, in the meantime, has agreed to receive a second Pakistani judicial commission to examine 26/11 witnesses in Mumbai in pursuance of its own trial proceedings against  Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi and six other 26/11 Pakistanis accused in the Mumbai attack. Bringing the Pakistani masterminds and handlers to book would be a powerful confidence building measure, if combined with implementation of Nawaz Sharif’s renewed assurances that Pakistani soil will not be allowed to be used for cross border terror against India. 

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