Afghanistan currently is in a veritable mess. Since the end of the combat mission of the US and other Western troops in Afghanistan at the end of December, 2014, there has been a gradual deterioration of the security situation in the country because of the growing strength of the Taliban-led insurgency. In 2015, more than 5,000 local policemen and military troops were killed at the hands of the Afghan Taliban. According to the latest reports, the current year may prove to be even deadlier. Taliban fighters are putting intense pressure on the Afghan troops in different parts of the country, stretching them to their limits on multiple fronts. In August, Khan Abad in north-eastern Kunduz province was briefly captured by the Taliban before the Afghan government forces retook it. Recent reports indicate that the Taliban insurgents were about to capture Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province, a few days ago. However, Afghan troops were able to push them back with great difficulty after receiving reinforcements.

The security situation of the Afghan government, therefore, appears to be extremely precarious. The disputes between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have further weakened the over-all position of the Afghan government vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban. These developments forced President Obama in July this year to slow down the planned withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. Consequently, instead of the total withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2016 as originally planned by the Obama administration, the US would have 8400 American troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2016 out of a total of about 12000 NATO troops. President Obama had also earlier decided to expand the role of the US troops in Afghanistan to provide greater support to Afghan troops in fighting the Taliban insurgency.

Several factors have contributed to the worsening security of the present Afghan government. US policy blunders in handling the post-9/11 Afghanistan situation have been the main factor responsible for the weakness of the Afghan government. The Bonn Agreement of December, 2001, which reflected US preferences, established a Northern Alliance-dominated government in Afghanistan, thus, virtually disenfranchising the Taliban and the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. In subsequent years, the US over-emphasized the military dimension of its Afghanistan policy at the expense of the political dimension. Further, the Taliban were treated as terrorists like Al Qaeda although, despite their obscurantist policies, they constituted a legitimate part of the Afghan political spectrum. It is only more recently that the US has started calling for a political settlement between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government, thereby, recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political group.

However, the assassination of the former Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, by the US in Pakistani territory on 21 May this year shows the continued ambivalence in the US policies towards the Afghan Taliban. The assassination was in total contradiction with the US suggestions to the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table for reaching a political settlement with the Afghan government. It also undermined Pakistan’s position in encouraging the Afghan Taliban to commence a dialogue with the Kabul government. From the point of view of the goal of a political settlement in Afghanistan, it is difficult to think of a more stupid thing than the assassination of Mullah Akhtar Mansour by the Americans. This development has made the commencement of a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which is otherwise advocated by the US, almost an impossibility in the near future. It also left the new leadership of the Afghan Taliban with no option other than to intensify fighting against the Afghan troops in the immediate future.

Pakistan is faced with an extremely serious challenge in handling the Afghanistan situation. It has paid a heavy price in blood and treasure in fighting the Afghan Taliban, who had taken refuge in our tribal areas, and their local sympathizers who were extending support to them in accordance with their tribal traditions. It is worth remembering that TTP and its terrorist attacks, condemnable as they are, were the consequence of Pakistan’s military action against the Taliban on our soil in accordance with the American demands. The US government and its military commanders, instead of recognizing the indigenous character of the Taliban insurgency and correcting their policy blunders in Afghanistan, have found it convenient to lay the whole blame for the setbacks suffered by them in fighting the Afghan Taliban, at Pakistan’s door-steps. Ideally, our assistance to the US and the Afghan government in dealing with the Taliban should have been combined with our demands that the US use its power and influence in Afghanistan for national reconciliation and a just political settlement in the country. Unfortunately, this was not done perhaps out of the fear of retribution by the US and the risk of regional and international isolation because of the terrible image of the Taliban world-wide in the aftermath of 9/11.

Washington continues to exert pressure on Pakistan in connection with the issue of the Afghan Taliban while showing little recognition of the heavy price that Pakistan has already paid in complying with the US demands. The US Congress denied funding earlier this year for the sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan. Washington later in August withheld $300 million in military reimbursements to Islamabad over its alleged reluctance to act against the Haqqani network in its tribal areas. US Secretary of State Kerry during his recent visit to New Delhi announced that the US would launch trilateral talks with India and Afghanistan on peace and stability in Afghanistan and on denying sanctuaries to the Taliban, on the margins of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month. This was a clear signal of disapproval to Pakistan and an indirect way of downgrading, if not discarding, the quadrilateral talks among US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Having delivered this diplomatic blow to Pakistan, Kerry ironically advised Islamabad not to feel “isolated by this”!!

How should Pakistan react to these developments of dire portents? We should continue Zarb-e-Azb within the country to dismantle and defeat all terrorist groups without any exception. The international community will simply not accept any ambiguity in this regard. This is also the demand of Pakistan’s long-term peace and stability. We should also tell unequivocally any remnants of the Afghan Taliban on our soil to either give up militancy or return to Afghanistan. There is no justification for them to stay on our soil now that the bulk of the American troops have been withdrawn from Afghanistan. In return, the Afghan government should not provide sanctuaries on its territory to terrorist elements working against Pakistan whether they are fugitives from Pakistan or the agents of some foreign power.

Simultaneously we should tell Washington and Kabul that our efforts to deny sanctuaries to the remnants of the Afghan Taliban on our soil would achieve desired results only if the Afghan government also makes serious efforts to engage the Afghan Taliban in talks for a political settlement. The proposed intra-Afghan dialogue is in the interest of both the Afghan government and the Taliban as neither of them alone can rule Afghanistan under conditions of durable peace and stability. A declaration of cease-fire by the Afghan government and Taliban could set the stage for the commencement of an intra-Afghan dialogue. Finally, we should follow a policy of strict non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs while offering maximum possible assistance to it for its economic development within the limits of our resources.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.