Afghan President Ghani is praising Pakistan & releasing Taliban leaders. Something’s fishy

Ashraf Ghani’s government must not repeat the disastrous mistake of offering yet another ‘olive branch’ to Pakistan.

 Updated: 28 June, 2019 4:31 pm IST

After more than three years, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is on his third visit to Islamabad for a new episode of rapprochement with Pakistan. He reportedly had a one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan Thursday and praised Pakistan’s “efforts” towards the Afghan peace process.

Since almost a month, Ghani’s administration has been propagating the false notion that Pakistan is moving in a positive direction in its Afghan policy and there has been a ‘change’ in Islamabad’s thinking vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the region.

This may come as a miracle, especially if, as an Afghan, you have always been told and have witnessed just the opposite all your life. Is there, all of a sudden, a genuine warmness in the ties between Kabul and Islamabad? Or, is it empty rhetoric and an effort to appease Pakistan afresh?

Kabul should certainly engage Pakistan and leave all doors open for talks and diplomacy to improve bilateral relations. However, Ghani’s government must not repeat the disastrous mistake of offering yet another ‘olive branch’ to Pakistan to secure its support in the presidential election. While it is unlikely that Islamabad will mend its policies on Afghanistan in the near future, any Afghan government or group that places its narrow interests before its people and strikes a secret deal with Pakistan for personal gains is evil.

Also read: Why Pakistan continues to support the Taliban in Afghanistan

Break with the past?

After months of bitter accusations against Pakistan, Afghan National Security Adviser (NSA) Hamdullah Mohib travelled to Islamabad last month to prepare the ground for Ghani’s visit. On his return to Kabul, in an interview with Tolo News, Mohib repeatedly said that Pakistan is “moving in a positive direction”.

According to Afghan government’s observation of Pakistan over the last “ten months”, Mohib said: “We see that they [Pakistani officials] are moving towards a policy shift [regarding Afghanistan]. Whether [their] policy changes or not, it might become clear as a result of our talks [with Pakistan on June 27]. But their thinking is positive.” “Pakistan now sees its interest in Afghanistan’s security,” he added.

The Afghan NSA’s recent statement contradicts what he said about Pakistan just three months ago.

In March 2019, speaking at an event organised by Asia Society in New York, he had said: “We are not going to buy any more words from Pakistan”. He said while Pakistan speaks about “brotherhood”, “all we see is terrorists coming our way and no brotherhood”.

The ground reality

On the ground, terrorism is on the rise and Afghan people continue to be at its receiving end. A new report says that Afghanistan is “the least peaceful country” and “the deadliest spot in the world for terrorism”.

Afghan government estimates that “at least 50 people” die every day fighting terrorism. Suicide bombers continue to strike our major cities, including Kabul. The US and Afghan forces have stepped up air and ground operations against the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other Pakistani terror groups.

Also read: Afghanistan’s hope for peace rests on how India, Pakistan and China deal with each other

According to official estimates provided by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence and the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghan forces since June have launched hundreds of air and ground combat operations in more than 15 of the country’s 34 provinces. The Ministry of Defence’s data shows that Afghan Special Forces carry out 70-80 operations every 24 hours “in different parts of the country”. It is simultaneously carrying out a dozen airstrikes regularly.

If these official numbers are not just a part of Ghani administration’s propaganda, then we are certainly caught in a bloody foreign war, where the more we fight, the more entangled our forces and people become. This proves that the US security and defence pact with Afghanistan did not translate into peace and stability for the country. President Ghani’s military strategy of ‘Afghanising’ the US war and intensifying military operations across the country have terribly failed.

Eye on 2019 election

Ghani is desperate to win another presidential term. Therefore, he is eager to get Pakistan’s support not only for dealing with the Taliban but, most importantly, to win the 2019 presidential contest.

Ghani, according to former senior Afghan national security and intelligence officials, allegedly struck a dirty deal with the Pakistani establishment in 2013.

In August 2013, at the end of then-President Hamid Karzai’s formal visit to Pakistan, Ashraf Ghani, then a senior adviser to the President, “remained” in Pakistan and parted ways with the Afghan delegation “against the protocol”, according to former Afghan NSA Rangin Dadfar Spanta. In his memoir, Spanta writes that Ghani’s overstay in Islamabad helped him get Pakistan’s support for his candidacy in 2014 presidential elections. “The Taliban, at the behest of Pakistan, supported Dr Ghani in the presidential election and in those parts of the country where it was possible for him to receive more votes, the Taliban openly ceased all their operations and threats [attacks],” Spanta says in his book.

Also read: Pakistan would not benefit from a Taliban govt in Afghanistan contrary to popular belief

Former Afghan spy chief and a presidential candidate in the 2019 election, Rahmatullah Nabil, also believes that Pakistan’s interference, which he calls ‘Pakistan’s sympathy for Ghani’, in 2014 election favoured then-presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani.

On Ghani’s ongoing visit to Islamabad, Nabil tweeted that the Afghan president is “desperate to remain in power” and is “making secret deals with the Pakistani establishment”. He believes “similar” deals were made in the past too, “prior to the election”.

Fighting Taliban, freeing Taliban?

Ghani decision to release nearly 900 inmates from prisons across the country has attracted sharp criticism. Local media reports suggest that most of these prisoners are members of the Taliban. Afghanistan government has, so far, released 490 Taliban fighters who, according to President Ghani, are the “ambassadors of peace” now and “will not return to war”.

Coinciding with this, a key former Taliban shadow governor of Faryab province, Qari Salahuddin, has escaped from the National Directorate of Security (NDS) detention facility.

After his mysterious jailbreak, Salahuddin is reportedly back on the battlefield and the Taliban celebrated his return in Qaisar at a big public gathering. While the government is not providing any clarification or details regarding the incident, the local media has raised questions over his escape.

Current and former government officials and presidential candidates are questioning Ghani’s intention behind releasing the Taliban prisoners. Speaking at the Council of Ministers meeting last week, Chief Executive of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah said that the release of the Taliban prisoners “will lose its actual impact if it takes the form of a [election] campaign”.

The same can be said about Ghani’s new stance on Pakistan. Afghans continue to believe that the origins of the terrorists’ threats are still in Pakistan. Afghan military officials recently claimed that the security forces fought and killed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists in Kunar province.

In sharp contrast to the recent statements of Afghan NSA, the continued presence of LeT terrorists and the increasing violence clearly demonstrate that there is no “change” in Pakistani military’s strategic thinking vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

While the US military presence and war are certainly Afghanistan’s problem, the enablers here are Pakistan’s military rulers. The US military has no intention of chasing pro-Pakistan terrorists on the Afghan soil.

Washington has enough leverage to influence Pakistan’s destructive policies in Afghanistan, but that would hardly serve the goals of the US military in the region. Pakistan remains the US’ strategic ‘launching ground’ and, under President Donald Trump, the recent deterioration in Washington-Tehran relations only increase US’ dependence on Pakistan.

Also read: Seen as US’ successor in Afghanistan, China can take any stand it wants on Masood Azhar

Look for regional solutions

Afghans, more than ever before, need to unitedly look for a regional approach. Eventually, there have to be regional solutions for our regional problems (terrorism and radicalism). We need to build a regional coalition (India, Russia, China, Iran) to secure Afghanistan and strengthen regional stability.

India should join Russia and Iran in bringing the Taliban to the table. Strong regional support for negotiations with the Taliban can lead to peace in Afghanistan. Despite competing interests, it is in the strategic interest of all regional stakeholders to work together for a peaceful, stable and prosperous region.