Can We Afford To Lose Afghanistan? – Ayaz Wazir

One thought peace would return to Afghanistan with the drawdown of foreign forces from there. Even though all foreign troops, barring a few thousand Americans, have already left peace remains as elusive as ever.

There was some glimmer of hope, however, when Ashraf Ghani took charge as a democratically elected president. He immediately charted a new course of action for bringing peace to his country and started making all-out efforts to improve relations with Pakistan. His visit to the GHQ in Rawalpindi, the real power centre in the country, was a milestone in giving a new life to Afghanistan’s turbulent relations with Pakistan. After that he took other initiatives as well to allay Pakistani misgivings on certain counts on his country’s relations with India and to inculcate confidence. These included his cancelling an arms deal with India and sending Afghan cadets for training at military academy in Pakistan.

It was against this background that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul on May 12, 2015 to reassure President Ashraf Ghani of his support to the process of building bridges of friendship between the two countries. In his press statement in Kabul the prime minister condemned Taliban attacks and also declared that the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan. The Afghan side took him at face value and seriously believed that henceforth Pakistan would not hesitate to refuse space to the Taliban in case they refused to listen to overtures for peace with the government in Afghanistan.

The recent meetings arranged by NGOs and think tanks on Afghanistan in Qatar and other places in Europe had low-level representation from both sides. The conferences prematurely raised expectations among some who did not realise that they were not geared towards that end as both sides have yet to agree to hold talks at a senior level.

Meanwhile, the summer offensive of the Taliban has not only started but intensified – particularly in the southern and northern parts of the country. The recent attack on parliament in Kabul was another fresh episode of violence. Though the Taliban have taken responsibility for the attack it is quite likely that some quarters in Kabul may accuse the ISI of having a hand in the incident. That makes Ashraf Ghani’s position weaker against his opponents who are not happy with his policy of rapprochement with Pakistan. And if the Taliban refuse to listen to Pakistan’s advice to hold a meaningful dialogue with the government in Kabul and instead further intensify their summer offensive that will be disastrous for good relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will be back to square one and the blame game against each other will start all over again.

Pakistan has been trying to clear the country of militants for which Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in North Waziristan. Security forces engaged in the operation claim that they have successfully removed the Haqqani Network and its allies from there. But the whole region is yet to be completely cleared of unwanted elements. The good thing about the operation is that it is sorting out all the filth of the past without making any distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants. Since this paradigm shift was announced by the army chief himself one has to accept it. Sorting out all militants is not an easy task and clearing the region at the border with Afghanistan of all such elements will take quite some time. However, that should not cast a negative reflection on our relations with Afghanistan.

We cannot allow the opportunity of fostering friendship with Afghanistan, which has come after a long time, to slip away. Should we fail Ashraf Ghani there are too many opponents of Pakistan in that country who would love to take over the reins of power and work to Pakistan’s detriment, hand in hand with the neighbour on our east, not just on our borders but in Balochistan as well.

There is no doubt that some remnants of the past are still around and ground realities are not totally in sync with the declaration by the army chief that militants will not be spared and that the fight against them will continue till the elimination of the last one. This should be brought in line with the changed scenario. However, if the situation continues to be the same and the border region is not completely cleansed of all remnants as desired by the army chief that will certainly create doubts and misunderstandings in the minds of the people living on both sides of the Durand Line.

Meanwhile Ashraf Ghani’s support within the country is fast declining and so far he has nothing tangible to show for his friendship initiatives with Pakistan. He will not be able to sustain for too long the pressure that is being exerted on him by his opponents after the signing of the MoU by his intelligence agency with the ISI. It is imperative that some concrete steps be taken by Pakistan in the next few weeks to provide him with counter-balance for his opponents. One can only hope that the power centres in Pakistan directly handling matters are aware of the sensitive situation and will take necessary steps to relieve the pressure on Ashraf Ghani. The Afghans will not wait for us forever to reciprocate the gestures of friendship that they have made.

Failure is not an option so let us not derail the good work that has been done so far. That will be disastrous for both countries. Enemies within and some countries in the region are waiting to strike if we give them the opportunity. Let us not forget that ground work has already been made and some disgruntled elements of the TTP have changed their allegiance from the white to the black flags. It is thus all the more important for the leadership of our two countries to work overtime and with utmost sincerity to save the situation from slipping out of our hands.

Let that not happen under any circumstances since that would only serve the interests of those opposed to good relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and also against the development of the crucial CPEC which could be a game-changer for Pakistan. So let us not fall victim to the machinations of our enemies. Let us strengthen Ashraf Ghani’s hands by showing sincerity and thereby strengthening the bond of friendship with Afghanistan. It is only in our own long-term interests.