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Solution for Afghanistan

March 29, 2010

The following commentary is reprinted with permission from Saleem Safi.

Solution for Afghanistan
©  Saleem Safi
March 29, 2010

The Obama administration now slightly understands the ground realities in Afghanistan. This is evident from Obama’s speech in January this year, which shows clarity of thinking on the objectives. The objectives are denying Al-Qaeda a sanctuary to resurrect itself, and establishing a broad-based government before a U.S.-NATO exit from the country. The new approach towards Pakistan and the new era of strategic dialogue also supplement the idea of change in the U.S. approach towards Afghanistan. The administration’s point men for the region are busy defining the contours of the tactics to achieve these objectives.

The U.S. also realises the fact that it cannot honourably extricate itself from the quagmire without involvement of regional and neighbouring countries. These reduced objectives are now slated for regional consensus and international backing. But there are multiple regional and neighbouring players who scramble for securing their interests in the future setup. The current regional approach to finding a durable solution to the crisis, though realistic, is fraught with dangers if the players are not involved according to their stakes, roles and influence in Afghanistan. In this context, most of the stakeholders have similar interests, but their expected roles must be on grounds of historical engagement, cultural affinities and geographical proximity to Afghanistan.

For example, Pakistan, a smaller country in size and economy as compared with China and India, has to be given a greater role in the future reconciliation process, for obvious reasons. This country is deeply involved in Afghanistan since the USSR intervention in Afghanistan. During the process, it has cultivated deep relations with many Afghan factions and as such is matchless in terms of influence on most of these important players in the current conflict.

In terms of stakes and influence in Afghanistan, Iran rightfully enjoys the second place after Pakistan. Therefore, this country needs to be given a say in the strategic level decision on the future of that country. However, with the U.S. determined to engineer a “regime change” there, this important player is least expected to offer a helping hand to the U.S.-NATO alliance and Kabul.

The U.S.-Iran tensions on the nuclear issue and the recent arrest of Jundullah leader Abdul Malik Rigi have increased them. Similarly, the Western intention to involve Saudi Arabia was also not received well in Tehran. All these factors have annoyed Tehran to the extent that for the first time it boycotted the London Conference on the future of Afghanistan.

In this backdrop, the mounting tensions between Kabul and Tehran are visible. In a joint press conference with Karzai during a recent visit to Afghanistan, Ahmedinejad dubbed the U.S. presence in the region as the root cause of all problems. All these should be reason for the Western alliance to try to bring Iran back into the fold.

The Russians, the Central Asian Republics and China claim to have stakes in the Afghan issue as well. All these countries, though U.S. partners, vie for securing their stakes through a role in the reconciliation process. In the same vein, the Americans cannot be oblivious to the European and NATO agenda in the war battered country.

In a recent lecture in the U.S., British Foreign Secretary David Miliband emphasised the role of India and Turkey in the future reconciliation process. In this connection, the role of Turkey is understandable due to the fact that it is a Muslim Nato member actively involved in Afghanistan. Turkey also claims ethnic relations with the Uzbek population of Afghanistan. However, India’s role cannot be comprehended as it enjoys none of the Turkish advantages. So how could this country claim a role in the peace process in Afghanistan? It also needs to be appreciated that if India is given any role, Pakistan, with its deeper influence and higher stakes, will never let India have its way on any important issue to the peace process. In such an event, the whole process will become hostage to India-Pakistan antagonism.

Certainly, the strategic decision to initiate a new process for reconciliation and peace in the region rested with the Americans and its Western allies, but the keys to such an objective lies with regional players. All the stakeholders would like the Western alliance to clearly define various interests of stakeholders and then take genuine initiatives to address them systematically. They must be involved in strategic decision-making at the regional level. After accommodating these interests, the initiative for reconciliation process must be handed over to the Kabul government and the insurgents. This initiative needed to be a purely Afghan initiative between Afghans and the stakeholder, except that Pakistan should be kept out of the negotiation process.

All previous attempts show that when stakeholders were involved in the reconciliation process, the process failed due to the inability of the stakeholders to trust each other. On the negotiating table, everyone would lobby for his favoured proxies. This entire scramble leads to a non-durable solution.

However, there is one exception, Pakistan, to this rule. History, close relationship with Afghan Mujahideen, proximity and consequent fallouts of all Afghan wars, huge sacrifices, frontline role in fighting the terrorists and security concerns places Pakistan in a unique position. Its ability to influence any afghan event is matchless. Among all stakeholders in the region and immediate neighbourhood, Pakistan is the only country which is equally suffering from terrorism and bloodshed alongside Afghanistan. On his recent trip to Pakistan, President Karzai rightly dubbed both countries as “conjoined twins” who are destined to prosper and suffer together.

Recognising this fact, the Obama administration had hyphenated Pakistan with Afghanistan in its “Af-Pak” strategy. Why not Af-Iran or Af-India, because the world also considered Pakistan the equal sufferer. That’s why the wise people suggest that only Pakistan should be made part of the reconciliation process with Afghan factions.
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Saleem Safi works for Geo TV, Pakistan.

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