National and International Issues

An Opportunity for Peace in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is at a new and critical inflection point in its history. There is an opportunity today to end the forty years of conflict in Afghanistan, bringing peace, stability and development to the country and the region.
The “long war” in Afghanistan was triggered by Prince Daoud’s overthrow of the King in 1974, and successive coups in Kabul leading to the Soviet invasion. The mobilization of the Mujahideen and their success against the Soviets, the ensuing civil war and first Taliban takeover to restore order in Afghanistan, are well recorded events that transformed Afghanistan and the region into a zone of conflict. The refuge provided by the Taliban to Al-Qaida, and its 9/11 terror attacks, unleashed the 2001 U.S. “War on Terror” and U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan.
The U.S.’ decision to topple the Taliban government was a fundamental strategic error. Ousting a Pashtun dominated government and replacing it with the minority Northern Alliance was a built-in recipe for continued conflict. The subsequent series of strategic and tactical mistakes made by the U.S.-NATO forces and administrators in Afghanistan compounded the challenge of restoring peace and stability in the country.
Within a few years, the defeated Taliban, drawing on their experience of the anti-Soviet struggle, regrouped and revived a credible insurgency against the U.S.-NATO forces and the installed government in Kabul. Several repeated attempts by the U.S. and its allies to suppress the Taliban insurgency were manifestly unsuccessful for multiple reasons: the alienation of the Pashtun majority; rampant and pervasive corruption of the ruling elites; indiscriminate aerial and night attacks killing Afghan civilians and non-combatants; and the rise of drug cultivation, trafficking and crime.
The conflict and chaos also enabled several non-Afghan groups to utilize the ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan to conduct terror attacks within the country and in the neighbouring countries, in particular Pakistan. The opposition of certain Pakistani Pashtun tribes and extremist groups to Islamabad’s alliance with the U.S. in the War on Terror eventually led to the formation of anti-Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – that was also fully supported by foreign hostile countries – and thousands of terror attacks in the country, resulting in 80,000 deaths and an estimated USD 150 billion in economic damage.
From 2014, following the horrendous Army Public School massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan Army undertook a series of military operations to eliminate and clear out the TTP terrorists, and their foreign associates from all of (then) Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) at a considerable cost in men and material. Elements of TTP and other terrorist groups sought refuge across the border in the ungoverned areas of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in order to explain their failure in defeating the Taliban insurgency, the U.S.-NATO forces and Afghan authorities sought to shift the blame on Pakistan, alleging the existence of safe havens and cross-border support to the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Pakistan’s expulsion of all terror and insurgent groups from FATA agencies after 2014 was downplayed and its proposals for coordination to prevent cross-border attacks through expansion of border posts, electronic monitoring and fencing the border were sidelined or opposed. 
While Pakistan was consistently accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban, a number of Pakistan’s traditional enemies in Kabul, in particular in the National Directorate of Security (NDS), joined hands with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to sponsor and support TTP’s terrorism against Pakistan from Afghanistan. Conversely, the Afghan Taliban never attacked Pakistan. 
For the last decade, and well before he assumed office, Prime Minister Imran Khan consistently asserted that there was no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and that it could only be resolved through a political settlement. After trying several military surges and strategies along with exerting intense pressure on Pakistan to “do more” in the military campaign, the U.S. reluctantly agreed to explore a political solution in 2015. However, the first Kabul-Taliban meeting arranged in Murree by Pakistan was sabotaged by the NDS by leaking the news of Mullah Omar’s death. It was only after 3 more years that the U.S., under the Trump Administration, finally reached the conclusion that America’s “longest war” could only be ended through a political settlement. 
U.S.’ initial efforts to initiate a dialogue with the Taliban were infructuous. In the spring of 2019, President Trump approached Prime Minister Imran Khan for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Taliban agreed to negotiate with the U.S. – the real power in Afghanistan – but not with the Kabul government, which it considered a puppet. 
The U.S.-Taliban talks opened in late 2019 in Doha, Qatar. When they stalled, Pakistan’s assistance was once again sought to expedite the process, given President Trump’s desire to withdraw from Afghanistan, if possible, before the U.S. Presidential elections in November 2020. The U.S.-Taliban Agreement was signed in February 2020. The agreement stipulated that: the U.S. would withdraw completely by May 1, 2021; start the process of “delisting” the Taliban from the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) terror list, and secure the release of the 7000 Taliban prisoners held by the Kabul government. For their part, the Taliban agreed not to attack the U.S.-NATO forces and ensure that there were no terrorist attacks from Afghanistan against the U.S. The Taliban openly indicated that their campaign against Kabul’s forces would continue.
Despite the initial reluctance of the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul, Pakistan conducted high-level diplomacy to persuade both the Taliban and Ghani government to open an “intra-Afghan” dialogue in Doha. This dialogue started on September 12, 2020.
Despite the wide divergence in positions, Pakistan facilitated an initial agreement between the Afghan parties on the so-called “Rules and Procedures” for their negotiations in December 2020.
Unfortunately, the Ghani government dragged its feet in the negotiating process, first delaying nomination of a credible negotiating team, and then refusing for 6 months to release the Taliban prisoners as agreed under the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Nor did the U.S. fulfill all of its commitments. It did not initiate the delisting process in the UNSC and endorsed a caveat in Security Council Resolution (2513) that the Council would not accept the restoration of Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
The delay in the release of prisoners, and stalled intra-Afghan talks, ran down the clock on the withdrawal time frame envisaged in the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Meanwhile, in November 2020, President Trump was voted out of office. By that time, 2500-3500 U.S. troops, and an equivalent number of NATO forces remained in Afghanistan with a deadline of May 1 for complete withdrawal under the agreement.
The incoming Biden Administration undertook a lengthy review of America’s Afghan policy and the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Biden did not reach a decision until April 1. The new Administration decided to withdraw all U.S. (and NATO) forces by September 11, 2021 (later moved back to August 31), but to do so irrespective of a political settlement between the Taliban and Ghani government.
This decision to break the implicit link between troop withdrawals and a political settlement created disincentives for both the Afghan parties to conclude a political settlement which could have led to a ceasefire and an orderly withdrawal of the foreign forces. Obviously, with a unilateral U.S.-NATO withdrawal, the Taliban felt that their chances of defeating the Afghan government forces had improved (although they expressed continued readiness to negotiate an agreement). On the other hand, President Ghani, assured by the U.S. of continued security cooperation, weapons supplies and aerial support, also felt he had a new lease of life. Reportedly, Ghani assured President Biden in Washington that the Afghan National Defence Forces (ANDF) – with 300,000 troops, at least on paper – would be able to hold-off the Taliban indefinitely. He declared a delusional six-month military “campaign” to defeat the Taliban. And, he commenced a campaign of abusive propaganda against Pakistan.
Pakistan was always skeptical of the capabilities of the ANDF. It was composed of a majority of Pashtun foot soldiers, but led by mostly non-Pashtun officers. The ANDF’s numbers were inflated by “ghost soldiers” whose salaries were siphoned off by corrupt Generals. Its morale and motivation were low and its commitment to the Ghani government was uncertain at the best of times. Pakistan’s assessment of Afghan military capabilities was shared with the U.S. and its allies.
The collapse of ANDF and the vaunted warlord militias of Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Nur and Ismail Khan, was not entirely surprising for many. The only surprise was the speed of the collapse – within 11 days from the launch of Taliban’s military offensive to take over Afghanistan’s cities. The military collapse and Ghani’s ignominious escape (with USD 169 million in stolen cash) left the U.S. and its allies scrambling to extract their remaining forces and nationals from Afghanistan. However, the negotiations which preceded the military collapse did not envisage the evacuation of the U.S. or other embassies’ diplomats, much less of the Western-allied Afghans, since the transfer of power to an interim or coalition government was supposed to be peaceful.
Even in the final stages, there was reportedly an explicit understanding between the U.S. and Taliban that the latter’s forces would not enter Kabul until the U.S. evacuation was completed. It was the surprise exit of President Ghani and breakdown of the government’s security structures in Kabul which prompted the Taliban to enter Kabul and provide the security required to prevent looting and crime along with establishing the security parameter around Kabul airport.
The Taliban also agreed to allow the U.S. to bring in 6000 troops to control Kabul Airport and evacuate the U.S.-NATO troops and diplomats. This evacuation, after the initial chaos, was proceeding smoothly until the ISIS-K claimed suicide bomb attack, which killed several Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. soldiers.

Peace in Afghanistan is in the interest of the entire international community. A peaceful Afghanistan, together with Pakistan, can serve as a bridge connecting Central Asia and the Arabian Sea, offering immense economic opportunities to both countries and the region and help the people of Afghanistan reap the rich dividends of peace.

For its part, Pakistan offered all possible cooperation to the U.S. and its allies in the evacuation process. It evacuated over 2000 diplomats and international agency personnel, and even some of their Afghan employees on PIA flights. It agreed to the transit of thousands of other Afghans through Pakistan. However, Pakistan, which continues to host over three million Afghan refugees, did not agree to accept any new refugees.
The Taliban have objected to the evacuation of Afghan citizens who they say are needed to rebuild and run the country. There are, however, many Afghans who were associated with the U.S.-NATO allies, and some Afghan women activists who wish to leave Afghanistan. An agreement will have to work out with the Taliban or the new government, once it is formed, on allowing the exit of those Afghans who wish to leave their country.
Pakistan believes that, at the present stage, the primary objective of all parties must be to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan. The Taliban have announced a general amnesty and promised not to take punitive measures against those who worked with the international forces in the past 20 years. They have also undertaken to respect human rights, including the rights of women to education and work within the parameters of Shariah. They have announced guarantees for media freedom; provided protection to foreign diplomatic missions; and facilitated the efforts of the international community in evacuating their nationals, diplomatic staff, and those who worked for them. The international community should hold them to their promises.
It is unfortunate that India and some sections of the Western media have persisted in blaming Pakistan for the debacle of the Ghani government. Their desire is, as in the past, to explain their failure by scapegoating Pakistan. Instead of entertaining this motivated campaign, the international community must see how to restore stability in Afghanistan. 
Three things are vital to stabilize Afghanistan: one, the formation of an inclusive government representing all Afghan ethnic groups through consultations among the Afghans; two, urgent humanitarian assistance for the 14 million Afghans in need of help and the early revival of the Afghan economy; and three, coordinated action against the terrorist groups located in Afghanistan.
It is to be hoped that the ongoing consultations in Kabul between the Taliban and other Afghan leaders will result in the formation of an inclusive and broad-based government, which could be validated through an Afghan mechanism, such as a Loya Jirga. The Afghans could then devise their own new constitution and governance structures.
Second, the United Nations and international community should play an active role in mobilizing humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan and set up structures to disburse such assistance. The UN’s appeal for USD 350 million in emergency assistance to Afghanistan is only 30% funded. The additional resources must be mobilized, perhaps through a donors conference.
Reviving the Afghan economy is in the interest of the Afghans and the international community. The threats held out by some of imposing new sanctions on the Taliban to secure their adherence to Western demands on human rights may prove to be counter-productive Freezing Afghanistan’s resources will spark inflation, higher prices for food and other necessities and also lead to refugee outflows and a humanitarian disaster. A collapse of the Afghan economy would produce the very consequences which are most feared by the West – the outflow of millions of Afghan refugees.
As Afghanistan stabilizes, the Taliban’s commitment to not allow Afghan soil to be used for terrorism against any neighboring or other country should be transformed into practical actions to neutralize terrorist groups like TTP, Daesh, ETIM and others, with the cooperation and support of the international community. For their cooperation in such efforts, the Taliban are likely to demand fulfillment of the U.S.’ promise in the U.S.-Taliban agreement to “delist” them from the Security Council’s “terrorism list”.
Peace in Afghanistan is in the interest of the entire international community. A peaceful Afghanistan, together with Pakistan, can serve as a bridge connecting Central Asia and the Arabian Sea, offering immense economic opportunities to both countries and the region and help the people of Afghanistan reap the rich dividends of peace.

The writer is presently serving as the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations and President of the Economic and Social Council. During his long career he has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to various countries, different intergovernmental organizations and the UN including Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, after serving as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva.
E-mail: [email protected]

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