Time is Ticking for Kabul

Hours ago, two Americans and Kandahar police chief Abdul Raziq were killed after Afghan guards opened fire shortly after the conclusion of a meeting between Raziq, Kandahar’s governor and General Austin S. Miller, the Commander of US troops in Afghanistan. Today’s blood-soaked events make it abundantly clear that the “just a bit more time until peace” narrative that the US publicly offers as well as the “Taliban vs. everyone else” narrative that the Kabul government continues to proffer are equally detached from the realities on the ground.

The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan’s population remains supremely discontented with the government and the general socio-economic situation in the country. This is as true among the country’s plurality of ethnic Pashtuns as is it among both large and comparatively small minority groups. While the Taliban remain the most visible opposition group, the re-emergence of a potent Taliban are less due to the fact that the group is able to offer a solution to the crisis that is somehow deemed superior by its supporters, but rather it is due to the fact that the Taliban are once again better organised than either the Kabul government or other opposition groups.

Making matters worse, the hypocrisy implicit in Kabul’s unrealistic sense of political geography is also precluding the beginning of anything approaching a long term peace process. The Russian President’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov recently stated that the Taliban control over 50% of all legally recognised Afghan territory. Other estimates from 2018 suggest that the number is in fact closer to 65%. In either case, the fact remains that while Kabul can barely manage to command events within its own territory, the government still refuses to recognise the Durand Line which demarcates the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Pakistan remains well placed to assist in a genuine international peace process, Kabul once again betrays its rhetoric with its obstinate attitude towards affirming the legitimacy of a crucial international border.

The reality is that Afghanistan is less stable now than it has been in years and the reasons for this are a combination of narrative fatigue from the United States and self-sustained delusions in Kabul. While the US continues to hold high level meetings with Afghan officials, including those like the one today that was subject to a gun attack from Afghan guards, America can barely conceal that its true purpose for remaining in Afghanistan is to gain leverage against Pakistan, Iran and China – three countries that in unique yet inter-connected ways would all benefit from stability returning to the long chaotic Afghan state.

Secondly, while earlier this year Russia attempted to host an all-parties peace conference in Moscow that would have seen the Taliban and Kabul government sit at the same time, Kabul later withdrew and subsequently Russia postponed the conference. While it would be easy to state the obvious fact that Kabul cannot exercise many important bilateral decisions with US approval, the less politically convenient fact is that Kabul itself is unwilling to sustain a much needed reality check. The current government both in terms of its goals and in terms of its composition is simply not fit for purpose. If Afghanistan is to become anything other than a permanently failed state, it needs some form of unity government that is on good relations with all of its neighbours. In order to achieve this, Afghanistan cannot pick rhetorical or strategic fights with any of its neighbours while it must also conduct a realistic assessment of the internal divisions throughout its regions.

While India recently rebuffed an olive branch extended by Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Iman Khan for long overdue peace talks, Afghanistan frankly has little choice but to take up Imran’s offer for a full scale reset in relations. And yet in spite of this and in spite of some promising rhetoric from Kabul, the Afghan government retains a position of de-facto hostility against Pakistan while Pakistan simply wants a secure border with Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s important Chinese partner seeks to foster harmonious trading relations throughout the region.

The Afghan government is both a hostage to a US authored future but it is also a hostage to its own rhetoric, geopolitical narrative and policies. In many ways this latter point is all the more important because even if and when the US deceases its presence in Afghanistan, Kabul will still have to grapple with a legacy of hostility with a major neighbour that cannot sustain long term peace let alone prosperity. Without engaging in an all parties peace conference, irrespective of which nation can organise such a thing first, Afghanistan will become a nation in name only and will instead retreat once again to being a mess of tribal rulers with no connection to the central government.

If the Afghan government truly believed that its people deserve better, it would swallow its pride and tell the world, including the United States that an all parties peace process must start immediately, even if this peace process is difficult which it clearly would be. Implicit in this is respecting Pakistan’s sovereignty, something that could turn Islamabad into a much needed friend of all the citizens of Afghanistan. Anything less than these steps will only create more chaos and violence in a country that has experienced far too much of each.

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