The inexorable march of events is towards the denouement of the US Afghan war which commenced in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11. The American war in Afghanistan has already turned out to be longest in its history with the loss of the lives of about 2400 American military personnel and over $ 1 trillion spent on it. The war began in the backdrop of the legitimate US anger and a great deal of international sympathy for it because of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Unfortunately, Washington committed several strategic blunders which prolonged the war, caused a huge loss in blood and treasure for the US, and aggravated the sufferings of the Afghan people. American leaders, generals and academicians for a long time tried to scapegoat Pakistan for the inevitable adverse consequences of their own policy failures. More recently, however, there are growing signs that the US, wearied by the war fatigue, may be finally getting ready to face squarely the ground realities and negotiate a settlement which would enable it to extricate itself from the war in Afghanistan with some dignity.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US was justified to set the defeat of Al Qaeda, which had organised those attacks, and its affiliates as one of its main goals. However, its easy victory over the Taliban government emboldened it to pursue the more ambitious goal of the establishment of a government of its own choice in Afghanistan. This decision proved to be a serious strategic mistake. The establishment of an Afghan government led by the Northern Alliance elements alienated the Pashtuns, who constituted half the population of Afghanistan, and narrowed its political base. American policy makers were oblivious of the ground realities in Afghanistan which had been the battle-ground for quite some time between the Taliban, representing mainly the Pashtuns, and the Northern Alliance leading the non-Pashtuns. The decision virtually guaranteed a challenge in due course to the authority of the Kabul government from the Pashtuns. This is precisely what happened when the American attention and military resources were diverted to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 enabling the Taliban to regroup and pose a challenge to the US-installed government in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban insurgency grew in intensity, helped by the US attempts to transform the Afghan society in accordance with its liberal Western values in disregard of the conservative character of the Afghan society, the US made the second strategic mistake of relying on its military power to defeat the Taliban and stabilise the Kabul government instead of utilising political means for the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. They failed to take into account the lessons of the Afghan history in which the fiercely independent Afghans had repeatedly defeated external powers trying to subjugate them, the latest instance being the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban gradually grew in strength and expanded the territory under their control or influence. The initial American response was to blame Pakistan for providing sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban in fighting the US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan and the forces of the Kabul government instead of realising the strategic mistakes committed by them and taking necessary corrective steps. While some of the Afghan Taliban may have taken refuge amongst their tribal brethren in the tribal areas in Pakistan in accordance with their age old tribal traditions, the real cause of the fighting in Afghanistan lay in the internal conflict between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns. The presence of the foreign forces in Afghanistan in support of the Kabul government added fuel to the fire of the Taliban insurgency because of the historically well-known tendency of the Afghans to fight foreign occupying forces.

Unfortunately, the governments in Pakistan starting with Pervez Musharraf’s military government, instead of explaining the porous nature of the Pakistan-Afghan border and the compulsions of the Pashtun tribal traditions to the Americans, caved in before the enormous US pressure and took military action against the Afghan Taliban, who had taken refuge in our tribal areas, and their sympathisers. One of the main reasons for the emergence of the TTP was this military action which forced the sympathisers of the Afghan Taliban to divert their fury against the institutions of the government of Pakistan not only in our tribal areas but also in settled parts of the country. The Americans thus succeeded in forcing us to fight their war in Pakistan entailing a huge cost in blood and treasure for Pakistan. According to some estimates, Pakistan lost the lives of about 75,000 of its nationals including civilians and soldiers, and incurred economic losses amounting to over $123 billion in fighting this US-imposed war. Therefore, one cannot but welcome Prime Minister Imran Khan’s determination not to allow Pakistan to be treated any longer as “a hired gun”, expressed recently in an interview given to the Washington Post.

It has taken 17 years of war in Afghanistan at an enormous cost in terms of human and material losses for the US to realise the futility of its strategy to achieve a military solution of the imbroglio in Afghanistan, and to finally set in motion the process for a negotiated settlement. American President Trump’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held two rounds of direct talks with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar with the objective of promoting the peace and national reconciliation process in Afghanistan. According to some reports, the Taliban in their dialogue with the Americans demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of all the US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan to pave the way for an intra-Afghan dialogue for a political settlement in the country. The Taliban also called for the release of their prisoners and the removal of international travel restrictions on senior Taliban leaders. The second phase of discussions would be among the Afghans themselves on how to bring about peace and form a government in Afghanistan. The latest round of talks between the American delegation led by Zalmay Khalilzad and the Afghan Taliban representatives commenced in Abu Dhabi on 17 December. In response to a request from US President Trump, Pakistan has played its positive role in facilitating these talks which will also be attended by the representatives of UAE, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The process of negotiations is likely to be slow because of the history of mistrust and grievances between the participating parties, past disputes and fighting, and differences on the shape of the final outcome of the negotiations. However, a negotiated settlement is the only way forward for the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country so that the Afghan people may take their destiny in their own hands free from foreign interference. In view of the importance of the peace and stability in Afghanistan for Pakistan’s security and economic well-being, Islamabad must continue its support to the Afghan peace process. It would be advisable to do so in coordination with major powers and Afghanistan’s neighbours to facilitate progress in the peace talks.

In particular, Pakistan and Iran, which have the longest borders with Afghanistan besides close historical and cultural links, must coordinate their Afghan policies. The lesson of the history is that when they worked at cross purposes as in 1990’s, both of them suffered and the situation in Afghanistan was aggravated. Therefore, they should refrain from repeating their past mistakes and work in close coordination with each other in the interest of the early restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan.

 

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

 javid.husain@gmail.com