End of conflict, or end of the way?


Candid Corner

  • Will Taliban rule Afghanistan again?

Things appear to be moving away from hostilities and, according to some inveterate optimists, towards peace in Afghanistan. But, does cessation of conflict necessarily lead to the advent of peace in a war zone and such other adjoining areas which may have remained gravely impacted because of prolonged bloodletting and violence?

In one’s eagerness to embrace peace – and for good reasons – one is usually willing to overlook underlying thorny issues which need study and remedy. A conflict spread over four decades is not usually confined to a few people. It leaves whole generations deeply bruised and battered – this being a deep and lingering pain which is difficult to heal easily!

So has been the pain in Afghanistan through the many phases and intensities of conflict it has endured over four decades. Multiple generations of people have known nothing but war, bombs, blood and death. They are referred to as the battleground children and no one knows the pain of conflict more than them. They realise the sufferance it caused and the grave tragedy it wrought in their lives. They still live it, enduring its multi-dimensional impact without interruption. It is a looming spectre they have to cope with.

At some point last year, may be even earlier, President Trump decided it was time for the US to quit its longest war. It may have been a consequence of his pre-election pledge with the American people, or the gradual accumulation of war-weariness over more than seventeen years with little to nothing to show by way of real-time achievement except dumping phenomenal sums of money in the war-ravaged country and sending considerable body bags back home.

Left to him, the US would have been out by now. But, there were others who wanted an orderly exit. So, more time was secured from a usually unyielding president – a year, some said, that would allow for an exit strategy to be planned and executed.

There is also no tailor-made assurance that an end of conflict may necessarily lead to the advent of peace in Afghanistan. That, inter alia, may require a few other undertakings

At that stage, Pakistan was lying somewhere deep in the dumps. Through years, it had been dubbed by succeeding US administrations as the villain who had thwarted US initiative for a victory in Afghanistan. In a tweet on January 1, 2018, President Trump had rubbished the country saying that “the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit”.

Around the same time, Pakistan itself was undergoing a change of guard. A new leadership was in the offing. There was hope in the air. Imran Khan was the embodiment of that hope and he was promising a sea change in the way Pakistan had been.

In the context of history, even at the height of the US-launched war on terror, he was the one leader who had spoken endlessly of the uselessness of conflict and had strongly advocated a negotiated settlement with the Taliban – a position for which he was much reviled and castigated. He was appropriately dubbed variously including as ‘Taliban Khan’ while his stance was generally confined to the dustbin of ridicule.

Just as he had assumed the mantle of leadership in the country, President Trump decided to take him on by firing a barrage of tweets demonising Pakistan’s duplicitous role in the Afghan crisis saying that the US would no longer pay Pakistan the billions that it had been paying.

Khan responded through a sequence of tweets highlighting the role that Pakistan had played and the damage it had suffered because of being a part of the US war on terror. He raised a critical question in the end: “Instead of making Pakistan a scapegoat of their failures, the US should do a serious assessment of why despite 140,000 NATO troops plus 250,000 Afghan troops and reportedly $1 trillion spent on war in Afghanistan, the Taliban today are stronger than before?”

And then it was time for a swift change of gear. The US decided it was time to leave Afghanistan. And what a turnaround it has been since then! The people who were accused to deceit and duplicity were approached for helping out with finding an exit. The ones perceived to have violated their oath of being an ally in a war were looked upon as potential saviours.

A war that most pundits predicted would likely drag on to the suffering of the Afghan people has since been moving slowly to an orderly closure. Dubbed negotiations for peace in Afghanistan, the on-going parleys between the Taliban and the US can more appropriately be called piecing together a document of surrender.

For, think as one may, what is not contained in the broad outline of the proposal which was not on the Taliban wish list? They have everything. They’ll get it which will then be used as the rationale for them to get more, even all. They will, ultimately, emerge as the rulers in Afghanistan unless a restraining mechanism is put in place to offset that. It is not clear yet whether that could come by way of the positioning a UN force, an Islamic force or prolonged US stay.

Pakistan has played a slick game which it construes will be to its ultimate benefit. It is looking for peace along its western border and it wants India decommissioned from playing a subversive role it has been accusing it of doing in the past. That can happen only with the Taliban commanding the post in Kabul.

With a possible Taliban rule in Afghanistan on the cards, how much of a gain such a drastic development can accrue in the long run and what are the possible pitfalls and caveats that Pakistan will have to face and endure in its quest for peace on its terms? The recent attack in the Indian-administered Kashmir is but an apt warning of the potential for trouble that it may breed.

There is also no tailor-made assurance that an end of conflict may necessarily lead to the advent of peace in Afghanistan. That, inter alia, may require a few other undertakings. In the event some of the contenders to power in Afghanistan are not in congruence with the terms of the potential agreement for peace, the prospect of a plunge into civil war remains a possibility. Let’s not forget that Afghanistan has seen this happen in the not too distant past. It cannot be ruled out. It also remains to be seen whether the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regional countries can actually converge around a grand master plan for peace.

That Pakistan has been able to do it this time around reflects the contours of a new country emerging. The painful dithering that it perpetually suffered from has given way to an approach marshalled by clarity, courage and conviction. It seeks peace along its borders without unduly ruffling its stakes and objectives and is willing to exhibit a high level of grit, daring, even brinkmanship in its pursuits.

Pakistan has moved on to establishing its centrality in the resolution of conflict in Afghanistan. This resurgent confidence augurs well for playing a role that would be commensurate with the state’s genuine and sustainable political, economic and strategic stakes – along its borders, and in the larger region.