Afghanistan’s case

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In my last article, I presented the grievances Pakistan has on Afghanistan. Here we focus on Afghanistan’s case on Pakistan. To have an in-depth understanding of Afghanistan’s stance, perceptions and grievances, I went on a three-day visit to Kabul and came back by road via Torkham.

I had an exclusive interview with President Ashraf Ghani, and enriching discussions with the intelligentsia, government officials, law-makers and common people. I had also a detailed meeting with Syed Abrar Hussain, Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul.

But this article is based on what I observed and sensed in Kabul and I am presenting it here with the hope that our think tanks and policymakers may be able to formulate a pragmatic policy towards Afghanistan.

This is not to say that I agree with these grievances or allegations of the Afghanistan side; all I am doing is trying to present the Afghan case with all its arguments.

Unlike my previous visits, this time I sensed an acute sense of hostility and resentment in the Afghans towards Pakistan. There was no one who supported or defended Pakistan’s role. Instead, everyone I met was on the same page in blaming Pakistan for the instability in Afghanistan. Some even seemed to harbour feelings of pure hostility and revenge, while others blamed Pakistan for dishonesty and treachery. There were very few who were giving friendly, neighbourly advice.

In the past Pakistan used to be blamed primarily by Afghan politicians and media personnel who were under the direct influence of anti-Pakistan regional powers. But since the mysterious death of Mullah Omar and the killing of Mullah Akhthar Mansour on Pakistani soil, every Afghan has embraced the theory that Pakistan sponsors the Taliban insurgency.

President Ashraf Ghani, the architect of outreach to and rapprochement with Pakistan, was highly critical this time. He and his team had a long list of steps they claimed Afghanistan had taken to win Pakistan’s confidence. Crediting American operations as their own, they claim arresting and handing over Lateefullah Mehsud and some of the attackers of the Army Public School to Pakistan. Similarly, they consider the killing of Umer Mansoor alias Umer Narray, the mastermind of the APS attack, in a drone attack as their achievement and a sign of sincerity towards Pakistan.

The Afghan president said on record that his government had bombed 11 times the hideouts of Mullah Fazlullah, the TTP head; Fazlullah though escaped all of them. Moreover, the president’s camp also claimed that China was made part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group at Pakistan’s request.

The Afghan side believes that these steps were taken despite immense domestic oppositions and apprehensions of regional friends like India and Iran.

The Afghans also say that President Ashraf Ghani paid a heavy cost in the form of domestic unpopularity for his reconciliation policy towards Pakistan. Opposition leaders and media started to blame him and call him out as a Pakistani agent serving the interests of Islamabad at the cost of Afghanistan’s friendship with India. Ignoring the domestic pressure and former president Karzai’s continuous pleas of not trusting Pakistan, President Ghani even agreed to send Afghan troops for training in Pakistan.

President Ghani feels that, in return, Pakistan did not cooperate and in fact failed to fulfil the promises made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – of bringing the Taliban to the reconciliation process. Instead of cooperation, Ghani complained to me, Pakistan expected the fall of the Afghan government and started to believe that the Taliban would manage to occupy many provinces this year. Hence, feels the Afghan president, Islamabad used delaying tactics while pushing the Taliban to intensify the war.

Besides disappointment and resentment towards Pakistan, this time the Afghan president’s tone also reflected a sense of over-confidence and national egoism. Many factors seem to be responsible for his aggressive posture. In the recent Warsaw Summit Nato has promised him the continuation of its mission and financial support. Similarly, the US has also assured him full support that his government will not be left alone to succumb to Taliban pressure.

In addition, the unpopularity of the Taliban due to their targeting public places, the effective use of drones to undermine the Taliban offensive and the weak leadership of Mullah Haibatullah are subsidising Ghani’s fear of the fall of Kabul or some parts of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Moreover, the new trade route to India via Chabahar, Iran as an alternative for the Pakistan route must also have enhanced his confidence.

President Ghani also harbours the notion that not only the US but China too considers Pakistan to be the cause of the failure of the reconciliation process started by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group.

Though highly aggressive and emotional in his interview, Ghani did not entirely close the doors for dialogue and reconciliation with Pakistan. The Afghan government still gives immense importance to Pakistan and considers its role vital for the resolution of the crisis. However, it asks for workable solutions.

Kabul demands that Islamabad should pressurise the Taliban and bring them to the negotiations table. The Afghans also say that Pakistan should help them deal with those who don’t want reconciliation. In return, they are ready to address Pakistan’s concerns and are even willing to make China and the US mediators to monitor the action taken by both sides. This offer was made on the record by President Ghani in his interview with me for my program, ‘Jirga’.

In a nutshell, some of the aspects of the Afghan case seem to be based primarily on misunderstandings, misperceptions and exaggeration. However, some of their reservations are genuine and cannot be ignored. These should be addressed in an environment of mutual trust, respect and understanding.

I believe that the mistrust will be overcome if President Nawaz Sharif and Gen Raheel Sharif speak directly with President Ghani and start a dialogue. Instead of using conventional diplomatic tactics, both sides need to accept their mistakes and start a new chapter based on mutual trust and a pragmatic approach.

On a positive side, President Ghani – during my show – extended an invitation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to visit Kabul. This is a good gesture and an opportunity to overcome the mistrust and bridge the widening gulf between the two neighbours. Though Nawaz Sharif has some health issues, he should seriously consider the invitation. After all, the distance between Kabul and Islamabad is not more than the distance between Islamabad and Lahore.

For a stable and healthy Pakistan, a healthy Kabul is a prerequisite. Our prime minister’s visit to Kabul will have a healing effect.