In attempting to comprehend the current situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States, especially considering the tensions that have been building up among the major players since 2011 as the 2014 withdrawal of international forces is fast approaching, who can shed better light on the matter than journalist and author Ahmed Rashid? Following is my interview with Rashid that was originally published on Asia Blog.
Preeminent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid considers the challenges facing the United States as it withdraws from Afghanistan and reviews its long-term engagement with Pakistan in his new book Pakistan on the Brink, a follow-up to his acclaimed Descent into Chaos (2008).
In Pakistan on the Brink Rashid argues that contradictory Western policies and a lack of clarity about U.S. aims and objectives in the region have significantly contributed to the deteriorating political and military situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rashid hopes that “the Americans are not looking for just a military deal with the Taliban to ensure their withdrawal,” but will also consider political solutions for a peaceful future.
Do you see Pakistan playing a meaningful role in Afghanistan’s political reconciliation process and a peaceful future for the region, given its domestic turmoil — in particular, the rift between the civilian government and the military establishment?
At present there is abject confusion in Pakistan because of multiple domestic crises, the insurgency in Balochistan and the rupture with the US and NATO. Pakistan’s Afghan policy is equally chaotic at present even though it is entirely in the hands of the military and the Interservices Intelligence with no meaningful input from the civilian government. The Foreign Office and its minister reflect the views of the military rather than the government.
Nevertheless having said that Pakistan’s biggest card is the presence of the entire Afghan Taliban leadership on its soil – a card that it has yet to play. Pakistan needs to help ‘deliver’ some top Taliban leaders to both the Afghan and US government for negotiations and it needs to free senior Taliban it has imprisoned for holding independent talks with Kabul. Pakistan’s failure to deliver so far and the inordinate delay in restarting its relationship with the US is slowing down the entire reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
What are some of the most common misconceptions that the Western media has about Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan, the U.S. and the Taliban?
The most common misconception is to view Pakistan as a constant spoiler in the Afghan reconciliation talks. Despite the fact that Pakistan has housed the Taliban leadership for eleven years it did so on it’s rationale that it had genuine security fears from the US military presence in Afghanistan, the Indian influence in that country and the role of other neighbours seeking influence there. There has been no real attempt to discuss and deal with these issues with the military. President Obama promised to do so when he came into office but quickly dropped the idea.
To what extent are Afghanistan’s people and ethnic minorities represented in international debates about reconciliation among the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan and the United States?
President Karzai has failed to make the reconciliation process all inclusive and bring on board especially the non-Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan and even those Pashtuns who have been threatened by the Taliban. There is no political process of reconciliation under way amongst the pro-government and the anti-Taliban elements in Afghan society and this is a big mistake. The lack of an Afghan concensus will become a big problem as US-Taliban talks progress.
How do you compare the post-Soviet U.S. disengagement from the region with the the upcoming 2014 exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan?
The Soviets looked for a deal with the Mujheddin just as the Americans are looking for one with the Taliban before they withdrew. The Soviets negotiated with the major Mujheddin groups to ensure a safe and orderly withdrawal for their troops but they failed to persuade the Americans and Pakistan to back an interim coalition government in Kabul to ensure an inclusive political process in Kabul.
I hope that the Americans are not looking for just a military deal with the Taliban to ensure their withdrawal, but will make any such deal conditional on having the Taliban agree to form a an interim coalition government with Kabul.
When we talk about a peaceful future for Afghanistan it is mainly seen in connection with Pakistan and its policies towards the Afghan government and the Taliban. What kind of a role do the other regional players such as Iran, India, China, Russia and Central Asian countries play? And how do they factor in a peaceful and stable future of Afghanistan?
All the neighboring states have to be bought into the peace process eventually and Pakistan has to make room for that to happen. At present all the neighbors of Afghanistan are opposed to any overwhelming influence by Pakistan.
However the US has to be more pro-active in creating a regional concensus about non-interference in Afghanistan – a concensus that is meaningful to the Afghans because they have had enough of interference by their more powerful neighbors.
In the video below, Rashid outlines the best case scenario for a withdrawal strategy. He explains that the Taliban have become more moderate over the years and they don’t see India as their enemy. In response to an audience question, Rashid highlights the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan’s Islamist parties as he addresses the improbability of any popular uprisings in Pakistan similar to the Arab Spring. (10 min., 11 sec.)
WordPress is terrible and does not let me embed a flash video, so please follow this link – Ahmed Rashid: What Peace with the Taliban Might Look Like