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Afghanistan between hope and despair

Iqbal Khan

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has invited prospective Prime Minster Imran Khan to visit Kabul. He twittered that they had agreed to “overcome the past and to lay a new foundation for a prosperous political, social and economic future of both the countries”. Afghan President took a good initiative to create another opportunity to re-rail raucous Pak-Afghan relations. Imran Khan reciprocated by indicating his vision of open borders between the two countries. “We want to work in every possible way to ensure peace in Afghanistan. I would love an open border system like the European Union with Afghanistan,” Khan said. Promising to visit Afghanistan soon after forming government, he said that his party’s government will revitalise the bilateral relations between the two countries.

Earlier in his Victory speech on July 26, Imran Khan had announced to work for peace in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is that neighbour of ours that has seen the most human misery and damage in the name of wars. The people of Afghanistan need peace, and Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan,” he said. In the past also, there have been numerous efforts to streamline this relationship but it could never gather critical mass to sustain requisite traction. Hopefully, the two governments would once again put their heads together to find out ways and means to mitigate the effects of fault lines which stand in the way of normalization of relations. They also need to be watchful of spoilers.

In another development, Afghan and the US governments have stepped up efforts to end the war. Reuters reported on July 30 about a recent meeting between the US diplomat and Taliban representatives in a Doha to discuss a possible ceasefire; talks ended with “very positive signals” and a decision to hold more meetings. American side was led by Alice Wells, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department. A Taliban participant said, “You can’t call it peace talks…These are a series of meetings for initiating formal and purposeful talks”. Talks took place with the approval of Taliban leadership council. Talks were without the presence of Afghan government officials at the insistence of the Taliban. Both sides also discussed Taliban participation in the Afghan government.

The only demand the US side made was to allow their military bases in Afghanistan. As hopes of possible formal negotiations have risen, the US has agreed to participate directly in the talks, although it insists the process will remain under Afghan leadership. The meeting in Doha followed two earlier meetings between US officials and Taliban representatives in recent months. “We have held three meetings with the US and we reached a conclusion to continue talks for meaningful negotiations,” said a Taliban official. Concurrently, Afghan government is in contact with Taliban for another cease fire during coming Eid. During the talks, the US has also pressed the Taliban side to accept the ceasefire offer for Eid-ul Adha.

Taliban source divulged that they would first exchange prisoners and then discuss other issues that could restore peace to Afghanistan. “However, our delegation made it clear to them that peace can only be restored to Afghanistan when all foreign forces are withdrawn,” he said. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper have reported on July 29 for New York Times, captioned “New US Tactic In Afghanistan Urges Retreat”, that:

“The Trump administration is urging American-backed Afghan troops to retreat from sparsely populated areas of the country”, officials said. It means that Taliban will remain in control of vast stretches of the country. This approach was outlined in a previously undisclosed part of the war strategy that President Trump announced last year. It is meant to protect military forces from attacks at isolated and vulnerable outposts, and focuses on protecting urban population centres.

This concept is not new; it was embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations. The strategy for retreat borrows heavily from Obama’s military blueprint in Afghanistan after he began withdrawing troops from front lines in 2014. After the declared end of combat operations in 2014, most American troops withdrew to major population areas in the country, leaving Afghan forces to defend remote outposts. Many of those bases fell in the following months. This strategy would mean that “the Taliban and other insurgent groups will hold on to territory that they have already seized”.

The retreat strategy is an acknowledgment that Afghan government is unable to lead and protect the country’s rural population. Afghan National Defence Forces and their international partners have slowly, but continuously “retrenched and ceded chunks of territory to the Taliban, cleaving Afghanistan into disparate parts and ensuring a conflict with no end in sight”. During a news conference in June in Brussels, General Nicholson had admitted that remote outposts were being overrun by the Taliban, which was seizing local forces’ vehicles and equipment.

“There is a tension there between what is the best tactic militarily and what are the needs of the society,” General Nicholson said.

Earlier Trump strategy had boasted that Taliban and Islamic State insurgents in Afghanistan “need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms.” Most Afghans live and farm across vast rural areas; just over one-quarter of population lives in urban areas. “This might be the weakest point of the government that does not provide security and access to their people.” said Mohammad Karim Attal, a member of the Helmand Provincial Council. Patchy US strategies are not likely to yield anything concrete. There is a need for bold course correction by the American side, provided its objective is to achieve at least a semblance of peace in Afghanistan.

Writer is a freelance columnist; e-mail: Iqbal.khan9999@yahoo.com

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