The power-sharing agreement reached between the two contesting Afghan presidential candidates — Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — has given rise to mild optimism in an otherwise very fluid and chaotic political and security environment. Clearly, the US played a critical role in bringing the Afghan leaders to agree to this complex power configuration. And if it were to falter, the US and Western countries will keep prodding Afghan leaders because they have high stakes in Afghanistan’s future. Credit also goes to the maturity and prudence of the two leaders who, despite their deep differences, agreed to a compromise political formula at a critical time in Afghanistan’s history.
The Bilateral Security Agreement to which both candidates had given their ascent will assure the continued commitment of Washington and Western countries for economic and political support. International support to Afghanistan is vital, but its future depends primarily on how the two leaders, Ghani and Abdullah, handle the main transitions — political, security, economic and administrative. Each of these transitions pose formidable challenges and are interlinked. There is no doubt that the two leaders have the requisite credentials in terms of experience, educational background and international exposure to lead the country. Ghani served as finance minister in Hamid Karzai’s government and interestingly, while serving in the World Bank, was responsible for Pakistan and knows our country and many of its leaders. Abdullah is a former foreign minister and a highly experienced politician. Both have broad support bases, although they are sharply divided: President Ghani enjoys support among the Pakhtuns while Abdullah is favoured by the Tajiks. Judicious representation of the main ethnic groups in the power structure is absolutely necessary for building political stability. For a successful transition, these two leaders and their respective team of politicians will have to set aside past rivalries and work for a higher purpose. Failure to work in unison will reverse the gains made so far and allow the Taliban and the warlords to reassert themselves with catastrophic results. Internal dissension will also slow down international support.
The ability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to gel as a cohesive entity that is above ethnic and tribal divisions and has the professional competence of holding against the Taliban is crucial. Any fracture in its ranks could lead to formation of several militias joining different warring factions. As reports indicate, the ANA has made modest progress and given a good account of its performance in some recent combat engagements. But there were occasions when it suffered heavy casualties and had to abandon its posts. A major weakness is the high percentage of illiteracy, lack of education in the army ranks and inadequate period of training of recruits. To counter the Taliban offensive, the ANA would need continued US air and surveillance support for a few years. Good military-to- military relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, based on mutuality of interests, will be a key factor in combating militants and stabilising the border. Regrettably, military-to-military relations have been coloured by mutual distrust and frequent border violations. There is a common perception in Pakistan that the Afghan Army is close to India. A large number of Afghan military officers and members of other ranks have been trained in India and are influenced by the Indian thinking. It is not surprising that the psyche that pervades between India and Pakistan is reflected in the behaviour of army officers of Afghanistan towards Pakistan. Our military’s support to the Taliban in the past has been a major source of friction and a cause of distrust between the two armies. There were other contributing factors in degrading Pak-Afghan relations.
Karzai was bitter with the US because he believed it opposed his election in 2009. Besides, he aspired not to go down as a protege of the US but as a nationalist who stood against all foreign intervention, including any coming from Pakistan. The reality, however, was different. He was brought into power by full US support and it was Washington’s sustained support that kept him going. Karzai’s salvos directed against Pakistan were motivated by multiple overlapping considerations. He tried to convey that he stood up to Pakistan but was genuinely hurt with our security establishment’s tacit support of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militant groups that were using safe sanctuaries in the tribal belt for launching attacks in Afghanistan. This eventually led to his government hosting our enemies along the eastern provinces, foremost being the TTP leader, Fazlullah, with his band of terrorists. Apparently, this had support of India as the Haqqani group was also alleged to be responsible for attacks targeting Indians, especially the Indian embassy attack in 2009. The US, too, remained deliberately indifferent to Fazlullah’s presence as his guns were directed at Pakistan and not on Afghanistan.
Second, it was considered a good tactic by Karzai to indulge in Pakistan bashing. In this way, he conveniently deflected criticism of his own shortcomings. Not the least, this was also a message that attempted to build for him a nationalist image and earn him a place in history. All this will have to change now if genuine cooperation in fighting insurgency on both sides of the border and building bridges between the two countries is to be achieved.
Afghanistan does not have a viable economy. The US and Nato allies currently finance its large security force numbering nearly three million. About 90 per cent of the Afghan budget is foreign sourced. Major restructuring will have to be undertaken to make it compatible with the requirements of globalisation. The new president is eminently suited to bring about an economic transformation, provided political and security conditions remain favourable. Afghanistan is known to have huge reservoirs of coal and precious minerals. For their exploitation, foreign technology and investment is a prerequisite and it would be forthcoming, provided there is peace.
The new leadership will also be looking at finding a peaceful way out with the Taliban and will expect support from Pakistan. If reconciliation efforts succeed, it will be in Pakistan’s interest because a blowback from a civil war or the unravelling of authority in adjoining provinces of Afghanistan will severely complicate its own counter-insurgency operations.