Afghan Peace: Between A Rock and A Hard Place
Peace has been the greatest obsession of Afghanistan’s national unity government for the past six months. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has taken five trips to Saudi Arabia, one to Pakistan, one to China, and one recently to the United States — all so that he could convince global and regional players to support his peace initiative. Ghani’s controversial foreign policy evolution from an Indian-friendly axis to a Pakistani-Saudi one to bring peace has been unprecedented. On his trip to Pakistan in November 2014, against all diplomatic norms, Ghani went to Pakistan’s military headquarters in Rawalpindi to meet with General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief of staff — a meeting that former President Hamid Karzai failed to have in the 20 trips to Pakistan during his tenure.
While Ghani faces regional obstacles in a hypothetical peace process, domestic barriers pose an even greater impediment. How realistic are Ghani’s ambition for peace, especially in a country divided by ethnic lines? How will Karzai and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah respond to the process? How is the Afghan government ready to compromise and is it ready for a backlash? Is Pakistan even ready to cooperate?
Ghani understands the complexity and fragility of the situation he is in. His government’s power-sharing partners are long-sworn enemies of the Afghan Taliban — partners who still have the ability to mobilize their publics into fighting the Taliban. Thus, Ghani needs to convince his partners, such as Abdullah; Balkh’s autonomous and rich governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, Deputy CEO and Hazara leader, Mohammad Mohaqiq, and his own vice president, General Abdul Rashid Dostum that a “peace deal” would never sideline them or undermine their position in the political arena. For Abdullah, his past battles with the Taliban and a commitment to continuing to do so if elected was what he capitalized on the most in his presidential campaign. A peace deal bringing the Taliban to a government half “owned” by Abdullah would fundamentally question the political narrative Abdullah and his allies have long survived on. Additionally, for Mohaqiq, whose Hazara constituency was massacred and discriminated against by the Taliban, it is not only a matter of power sharing; it is a potential threat to his people’s basic rights and opportunities gained in the past decade.
In addition to balancing his current government, Ghani has to walk a line with the past. Karzai, who founded and led the government for 13 years, established his legitimacy on fighting the Taliban. He, despite all the critiques, has been credited with bringing together all the ethnic factions and folding their military leaders into the political landscape. All except the Taliban. While Karzai didn’t leave any stone unturned or any door unknocked — from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to Turkey and China — he faced criticism from the Taliban and public alike. The Taliban always called his government a puppet of the West, while others said he was too lenient with the Taliban, risking Afghan national interests and his relations with key strategic partners.
The Taliban is populated by Pashtuns of the Ghilzai tribe, the tribe Ghani belongs to (Karzai, on the other hand is a Durrani). Given the long history of political rivalry and bloody feuds between the two tribes, if Ghani succeeds in putting an end to the Taliban insurgency, cutting their ties with other terrorist networks, and securing Pakistan’s interests, what would remain of Karzai’s legacy — what he said would be his top concern after leaving office — would be very different. At the national level, it could mean that Ghani would monopolize credit over Karzai. At the ethnic level, Ghani, as the first Ghilzai ruler of Afghanistan in almost 300 years, could make the political capital turn hugely in favor of Ghilzai. Karzai would then only be affiliated with the massive human and financial losses Pashtuns have incurred since 2001.
This peace process is not merely about security. It is about broader socio-economic changes – like education, employment, and lawful investment. So it is unsurprising that not only Karzai himself, but his close network gained during his presidency (his National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Minister of Interior Muhammed Omar Daudzai, and Chief of Staff Karim Khurram) every now and then interject into the discourse objections that Ghani’s efforts might be fruitless or that Pakistan is still far from trustworthy.
Their concern about Pakistan, however, isn’t entirely baseless. Has Pakistan really changed? Afghanistan’s recent history of war — starting with the Soviet invasion — has always involved Pakistan, whether as an ally or an adversary. Even Islamabad and Rawalpindi define the politics of the region through a lens of Afghanistan’s turbulent underpinnings. The recent interview of former Pakistani spy chief General Asad Durrani clearly shows that. Ghani also understands that peace with Pakistan is more important than peace with the Taliban. The two countries, Ghani said in his March trip to the United States, have been in an undeclared state of adversity for the past decade and if they commit to fight terrorism and insurgency together, peace with the Taliban would be achievable.
Whether Pakistan will really commit is a question only time will answer. In response to Ghani’s unprecedented acts of good faith, Pakistan has yet to show any tangible change in its behavior. In Rawalpindi’s view, the conflict in Afghanistan helps Pakistan remain the prime U.S. partner and aid recipient in the region. But beyond that, Pakistan has developed a “jihad infrastructure” as a foreign-policy tool which might not be easy to undo in the short term. Dismantling that policy may require the public’s consensus, a rallying that only comes when proxies break their leash and lash out against their protectors themselves.
The real task ahead of Ghani might not be how to negotiate with the Taliban, but rather how to convince all these stakeholders to support him. He needs to consolidate views inside the government to overcome domestic barriers, convince Pakistan that peace in the region is in the interest of both countries, and convince India that their cooperation with Pakistan does not threaten India and could even contribute to its security.