Ashraf Ghani pushes for pact with Pakistan against terror but profiteers, regional powers stand in way

Recently, Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani was heard saying that a Pakistan - Afghanistan pact against terrorism was almost a done deal. According to the president, this was to be a written undertaking for the very first time, and not an unwritten “understanding” that Islamabad manages to wriggle out of each time. Not that there is much morality among nations that ensures that they honour the written word. But it’s a beginning.

The president’s statement was greeted with derision by most Afghans, more so after a series of attacks in major cities that killed not only Afghans but also minority populations. The most recent Jalalabad attack killed 17 Hindus and Sikhs, including the only Sikh election candidate Avtar Singh Khalsa.

However, the Sikhs of Afghanistan have refused to run away, mainly because few Afghans ever actually see them as outsiders. That’s the real Afghanistan: Where every religion thrives, and no one is a stranger. The Taliban or Islamic State ideology which divides on the basis of sects and beliefs is entirely foreign to Afghanistan. That’s the first truth.

It is this Afghanistan which welcomed an unprecedented ceasefire by the Taliban – for just three days during Eid – and an 18-day ceasefire by the Afghan government. Media coverage showed Taliban and security forces hugging each other and even taking selfies, even as hundreds of Taliban fighters streamed into towns and villages to meet and greet.

This is the reality of a nation that refuses to be divided despite the efforts of Pakistan and major powers. The Taliban leadership, however, called a halt to this bonhomie, fearing that once the dam opened, fighters may just return to their families and villages and never come back.

So here’s the second truth. This war is fought under pressure not only from Pakistan, but also from greedy insurgent leaders living comfortably in Quetta, Karachi and elsewhere. There’s money in war, and nothing very much to go into their pockets in peace.

Afghans celebrating the ceasefire in June. Reuters

Afghans celebrating the ceasefire during Eid in June. Reuters

The ceasefire did not extend to the so called “Islamic State of Khorasan” (ISK) which claims allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Not surprisingly therefore, the ISK continued with its attacks, including the attacks on the Sikhs and Hindus.

ISK claimed 19 attacks in 2018, mostly in Kabul and its environs, and its attacks have increased since Ramzan began. In fact, the Islamic State banner is probably the most active in Afghanistan at this time than anywhere else in the world.

The ISK, which functions in isolated pockets and is made up of ex-Taliban leaders, is an extremely amorphous group with unclear objectives. As of this period, it has essentially kept up the fight, while the Taliban observed the ceasefire. The Taliban turned up as the good guys (read negotiable), while their ISK cousins remained the outlaws. That’s the fourth truth.

Added to all this is the fact that this has been an unusually strong season for writing, talking or meeting up in terms of “peace talks”. Towards the end of February, president Ghani offered peace to the Taliban in a series of measures that started with an offer of ceasefire, recognition of the Taliban as a political entity, and safe passage to those who would reconcile. Prior to that, the Taliban themselves had put out an open “letter to the American people”.

The missive with its somewhat Soviet-esque style of composition, stated that ‘prolonging the war in Afghanistan and maintaining American troop presence is neither beneficial for America nor for anyone else… this is an irrefutable reality which is only rejected by your arrogant authorities. If you want peaceful dialogue with the Afghans specifically and with the world generally, then make your president and the war-mongering Congressmen and Pentagon officials understand this reality and compel them to adopt a rational policy towards Afghanistan!”

That was about as clear as it could get, and it was public. Apart from this, the signals from US authorities in Afghanistan were also that dialogue was going on at ‘multiple levels’ and ‘off the table.’ Then there are the Afghans themselves, who launched a somewhat ragged ‘peace march’ from Helmand in March, and which concluded on 18 June in Kabul. This was clearly a grassroots effort, even if it was not quite large enough to be a movement.

US statistics also seem to indicate that there is some interest from within the Taliban. General John William Nicholson observed at a briefing that the Taliban-initiated violence dropped 30 percent between February to April when the peace overtures began. Though violence has again climbed with the announcement of the new offensive, it is still below expected levels.

It seems that all of these may contribute to the fact that Ghani’s hand may be a little stronger than before. Besides, he wants to flaunt a beautiful peace-signing ceremony before the next elections, now set for October. Politics and war weariness together may do the trick, as it has done in other places. But the end — in cinemascope letters — will come only when the hardliners are killed and the remaining negotiate. That’s the final truth.

If all of these truths are put together, then it is abundantly clear that the war is not just financed, supported and fed from outside the country, but also has its rationale foisted on it, not only by Pakistan but by a group of people who clearly don’t want the war to end. Among these are those who directly profit from the war (like the drug mafia and Taliban leaders whose interests overlap), and those countries who are easing the pressure on Pakistan.

As Pakistan writhes under the problems caused by the ‘grey listing” by the FATF and the need to negotiate a new IMF loan, it is China which is helping out by providing the necessary loans to keep foreign exchange levels viable. A breakdown of the Pakistan economy is in nobody’s interest, but Chinese pressure on Pakistan to end the Taliban adventure is yet to be seen. There are those who say that there are limits to US pressure: Which is only partly true.

It is the argument that there are limits to Beijing’s pressure which is false, particularly where the Pakistan Army’s plans for Afghanistan are concerned. Beijing has not yet shown the slightest indication that it is willing to use its financial clout to end the carnage in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s pleas that it cannot do much about the Taliban need to be evaluated against the realities outlined above. A good motto for future negotiations could be “let the truth prevail,” and a good dose of common sense is also needed. That beats high strategy anytime.

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Updated Date: Jul 02, 2018 20:42:22 IST

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