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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Hurdles to Peace in Afghanistan

Due to intrinsic contradictions, the discussion on Afghanistan peace by most regional and extra regional analysts sounds more like description of an elephant by few men in a dark room. My last analysis “Looming Scenario for Afghanistan Post Doha Peace Deal” was published on 17th March 2020 and since then I had waited patiently for eight months to see the validity of my thoughts on the subject. I had opined that the Afghan conundrum was far more complex than the Vietnam fiasco keeping in mind the duration of the conflict, nature of the war zone, geography, characteristics and history of the insurgents, internal tribal dynamics and power politics. Besides, the involvement of a number of regional and extra-regional actors and consequent dozens of belligerent proxies, shifting loyalties, war-profiteers in USA, NATO countries, Afghanistan and its neighbours, ethnic and political polarization and above all the new great game being played in the same old arena by three main global players now instead of two further complicate the imbroglio. It is a given that after US and Taliban coming to some terms, the ultimate success of any peace efforts will be Afghans’ own responsibility as only they can resolve their differences; firstly between the sitting government i.e. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and secondly between government and Taliban with focus on main issues including cessation of hostilities, disarming, agreeing on a power sharing formula, merger of warring government forces and Taliban fighters, rebuild modus operandi, available and needed financial support, improvement in law and order situation, food security, narcotics and smuggling control, getting rid of foreign terrorists footprints, agreeing to rid Afghan human resource being used as mercenaries and proxies for foreign forces etc. Since there are neither any UN peacekeeping forces nor other institutional support available in Afghanistan to assist in finding answers to the above mentioned big questions, therefore at least USA and allies will have to remain engaged in Afghanistan for quite some time to help and improve chances of success of peace efforts and terminate an endless war. If it fails on that count, Afghanistan is prone to remain a bleeding wound spreading its infectious germs far beyond CASA region. Unfortunately, despite involvement by more than 50 countries, not much has happened to address the above stated issues let alone improve upon any of it.

While the international community’s attention is focused on the landmark intra-Afghan peace talks currently taking place in the Qatari capital Doha, a new report detailing the staggering amounts of money lost to “corruption, abuse and waste” in Afghanistan in the last two decades highlighted the many challenges the country will continue to face even after the signing of a long-awaited peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Reportedly, since the toppling of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the US Congress has appropriated nearly $134bn for Afghan reconstruction programmes. This is almost equivalent to the amount the United States spent on rebuilding Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II, which cost approximately $135bn in today’s money and constituted about 4.3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the US. The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recently released a report containing a forensic audit of $63bn of the money the US has spent on Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002. The report, published on October 20, concluded that “a total of approximately $19 billion, or 30% of the amount reviewed, was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” In 2018-2019 alone, the report said, approximately $1.8bn was lost to corruption. The SIGAR report clearly demonstrates that prevalent corruption, widespread insecurity, and lack of accountability continue to make investing in Afghanistan highly risky. This exposes the failure of the Afghan government’s efforts to prevent the proliferation of corruption and casts serious doubts over its ability to successfully oversee the reconstruction of the war-torn country after reaching a settlement with the Taliban. Therefore, it is imperative for those negotiating in Doha to understand that, whatever the outcome of their talks may be; Afghanistan will remain highly dependent on foreign aid for the foreseeable future. By some conservative estimates, it needs $5bn in foreign aid annually merely to prevent the collapse of its core institutions. Who will be ready to assume this huge financial responsibility and how will an Afghanistan government generate this money. In the last week of November, international donors are scheduled to meet in Geneva to renew foreign aid for Afghanistan. But this year, many donors are suggesting big cuts to their aid budgets, amid ongoing concern about Afghan corruption and lingering doubts about the country’s ability to maintain progress on human rights after the end of the conflict. To address this concern, Afghan officials are trying to contain a spate of kidnappings and armed robberies that appear designed to bolster public thirst for Taliban-style justice—just ahead of a critical donor meeting; though less likely to change the minds of donors.

Another critical aspect related to peace in Afghanistan has been Trump’s announcement to pull out from all unending wars including Afghanistan mainly due to the economic crunch. National security adviser Robert O’Brien made a surprise announcement on Oct. 7 that the U.S. would reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year. This completely dumbfounded the Pentagon and top military commanders. The confusion was compounded a few hours later by the president’s tweet that all forces “serving in Afghanistan” would be “home by Christmas!” Also blindsided were American Afghan allies in Kabul, who had just begun negotiations with the Taliban about an overall peace settlement. The president’s tweet was, however, endorsed by the Taliban. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley quickly attempted to limit the damage. He stated that the United States-Taliban agreement and associated drawdown plans were all conditions-based. However, on Tuesday 17 November 2020, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller confirmed in a statement that the Trump administration will draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 troops in each country before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in January; a move that will put the outgoing president at odds with Republicans in Congress and the incoming Biden team. Besides, such an abrupt and controversial move is likely to embolden the spoilers to peace in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Biden has promised to leave a residual counterterrorism force in Afghanistan when he takes office, making some experts wary that the incoming commander in chief could disrupt fragile peace talks with an overly bellicose approach.

Crime, corruption, nepotism, and a perceived lack of government’s regard for citizens’ security are nothing new in Afghanistan. But the massive fall crime wave, worst in Kabul but evident in other cities, only further undermined the unpopular government’s legitimacy and highlighted simmering security vulnerabilities. However, some of the major recent terror incidents disowned by Taliban and blamed on IS have been assessed by some analysts as CIA’s and other proxies’ move to prolong their presence in the region for achievement of undeclared goals. Above all, the internal, external and regional spoilers who have thrived on American embroilment in its longest war are likely to augment their wicked efforts to keep US stuck in the Afghan muck; and therefore America will have to remain closely engaged and meaningfully cooperate with Pakistan to thwart such efforts, its Indo-Pacific rebalancing policy notwithstanding. The recent visits to Pakistan by Gulbadin Hikmatyar and Mr. Abdullah Abdullah were a positive development to further boost the reconciliation and peace efforts in Afghanistan. The maiden visit by prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan to Afghanistan on Thursday 19 November was yet another bold diplomatic move to reaffirm Pakistan’s commitment to bring peace in Afghanistan and the region as per long held stance. However, the real test of Afghanistan government and people’s sincere reciprocity to Pakistan’s hospitality and consistent sacrifices and contributions towards bringing peace would be the elimination of Indian proxies operating from Afghan soil to hurt Pakistan in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with sinister eye on CPEC projects.

19 November 2020

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