History has come full circle!
On 29 February 2020, nearly 19 years after the events of 9/11 attacks, a peace accord was signed in Doha, Qatar between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which the Americans recognize only as the Taliban and the US Government. As per the terms of the deal, the US and their allied forces will initially reduce their numbers to 8600 in the next 135 days and will subsequently withdraw all forces, trainers and contractors within 14 months. An intra-Afghan dialogue is scheduled to start on the 10th of March among guarantees that the Taliban will not allow their soil to be used against the US and to hold the ceasefire. This arrangement allows the US to find a face saving exit from Afghanistan (the graveyard of empires) and provides an opportunity to the Taliban to become part of the Afghan government.
The government in Kabul is woefully divided. The former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, partner in the previous Unity Government, has refused to accept the results of the presidential elections and has vowed to form a parallel government. So far the Taliban have been able to prove very resilient. They have survived the American offensive and finally got a peace deal signed with them directly without involving the Kabul government. It would depend on their negotiating skill to engage all Afghan stakeholders in forming a new ruling dispensation without leading the country into another debilitating civil war, the kind that happened after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
Peace in Afghanistan is in the interest of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered tremendously because of the great powers shenanigans in Afghanistan over the past 40 years. A peaceful Afghanistan means that Pakistan’s western borders will be secure and the threat of terrorists infiltrating from that side will reduce and eventually diminish. The influence of India will also greatly reduce and so will their capacity to do mischief. A peaceful Afghanistan will mean that the TAPI (Turkmenistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline and CASA 1000 electricity project from Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan will become a reality. This will also open the possibility of linking Afghanistan and Central Asia with the CPEC project. The dividends of peace in Afghanistan are limitless. Pakistan has paid a tremendous price for the fall outs of the Soviet and American invasions. It has at its peak hosted over 5 million refugees. It still has between 2 to 3 million Afghan refugees on its soil. Ideally they should go back but this will only happen, if Afghanistan becomes normal once again. Even then many of them, particularly the second and third generation will remain behind. Pakistan should work towards their resettlement within Afghanistan and on their territory as well.
In a stable Afghanistan the possibilities of investment for the government as well as the private sector will increase exponentially. Afghanistan has to be rebuilt and reconstructed. Pakistan has the experience in resettling displaced people and building infrastructure, particularly roads. Universities need to be reopened and health and education sector and law enforcement agencies needs to be revived and resuscitated. Pakistan has the necessary expertise to help Afghanistan rebuild its administrative structures.
It is time for Pakistan to think on the long term basis and not let this historic opportunity slip out of their hands. The future of Afghanistan and Pakistan is interlinked in many ways and a collaborative approach on equal terms is going to help both these countries prosper in the long term. The need is that the government of Pakistan should come up with a realistic strategy for engaging Afghanistan without appearing to be overbearing. Over the years, Kabul’s governing elite under the king, the communists and the Americans have developed an anti-Pakistan narrative that needs to be erased by being sympathetic to the needs to the Afghan people. This is possible, if done with sincerity, honesty and commitment. The bottom line is that no effort should be spared to make the future government Afghanistan stable and secure and its writ. It should be strong enough to extend to all parts of the country, so that it does not fall prey to violence and unrest again.