April issue 2015

By | Viewpoint | Published 5 years ago

On his first trip to the United States of America after becoming Afghanistan’s President six months ago, Dr Ashraf Ghani made sure he said all the right things to reassure his American hosts that they could trust him as a credible partner, unlike his mercurial predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

Ashraf Ghani’s mission in Washington was to convince the US ruling elite to stay engaged with Afghanistan as it was in everyone’s interest to stabilise his war-ravaged country. He wanted help to enable the Afghan government to defend the country against Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other militant groups, to take forward the proposed peace process with the Afghan Taliban and sustain the gains made in different walks of life in the post-Taliban period stretching from 2001-2014.

By the end of his five-day visit, it appeared that the Afghan President had charmed many Americans. The suave Ashraf Ghani, who for years had taught at universities in the US and worked at the World Bank, knew the American system and way of life fairly well and was thus able to use the knowledge to his advantage. As he attended one event after another at the White House, Capitol Hill, the think-tanks and the media houses, he fervently pleaded Afghanistan’s case and explained the steps his unity government had taken to carry out reforms and fight corruption. Before long, he had attracted a fair amount of attention and support.

Though expected and already in the works, one outcome of the visit was the decision by President Barack Obama’s administration to slow down the phased withdrawal of the remaining 10,800 US forces from Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani had started making this demand a few months ago, and senior US officials at the Pentagon and its military commanders in Afghanistan too had given broad hints about it. According to the earlier plan, half of the US troops were to return home by the end of 2015. The changes in the plan meant that these 5,400 American soldiers would stay on for now and gradually be withdrawn under a new schedule in 2016. The final date of the pullout of all the 10,800 troops is still December 2016 as announced much earlier, but at this stage one cannot say if this deadline is changeable or not. The ultimate decision about bringing all the US troops home would depend on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. If the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) do well and hold the ground against the Taliban and their allies, particularly in the so-called ‘fighting season’ in the coming summer, the US government could stick to the withdrawal timetable.

In any case, a few thousand US soldiers would continue to be deployed even post-2016 at the massive US 1

embassy in Kabul. The exact numbers aren’t known but there are plans to keep a sizeable number of US troops at the sprawling embassy complex. They could include Special Forces, intelligence and counter-terrorism operatives and military trainers who would continue to train the Afghan forces. The continued US military presence would calm down the Afghan ruling elite, which is concerned that the emboldened Taliban would gain territory and influence if all the foreign troops, including the 3,000 deployed by other Nato member states, are withdrawn post-2016. Moreover, President Ashraf Ghani and his former presidential election rival Dr Abdullah, presently the de facto prime minister in his capacity as the Chief Executive Officer in the unity government, are aware that presence of even a few thousand American troops in Afghanistan would ensure continued US interest in the country, along with uninterrupted military, economic and political assistance.

President Obama had timed the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan with the end of his second term in office. He wanted all the troops home on the completion of his tenure so that he could claim that he had brought an end to the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited from his predecessor, George W Bush. However, the US, due to its global agenda, is getting militarily involved in the affairs of more and more countries and the demand on the use of its military resources is growing. It is, therefore, unlikely that the US would be able to untangle itself from the situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the Middle East, some of the African countries or the Asia-Pacific, which has become the focus of its future adventures to reassure its worried allies and contain China.

President Ashraf Ghani managed to send a positive image of his unity government by bringing the Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah, his rival-turned-ally, along with him to the US. Important ministers belonging to the two camps also accompanied them to give a message of unity and hope. This must have pleased the Obama administration, which had brokered the deal through Secretary of State John Kerry to persuade Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, and Abdullah, who primarily draws his support from Tajiks, to share power in the unity government to end the stalemate resulting from the dispute over the outcome of the presidential election. The impasse following the nine-month long election process had taken a dangerous turn as Abdullah had refused to accept his defeat by alleging that the polls were rigged and the results were doctored in favour of Ashraf Ghani. His supporters had even warned of setting up a parallel administration and highlighted the likelihood of an ethnic-fuelled civil war if Abdullah wasn’t declared the winner.

Though the unity government has been dogged by problems, including disagreements over the composition of the cabinet that consumed four precious months and added to the severity of the security and economic challenges facing the country, it has remained intact due to Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah’s efforts to rule by consultation and consensus. The US was the architect of the unity government and it has made it work until now. And only Washington has the kind of leverage, due to its substantial military and economic assistance, to Kabul, to keep Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah together and sustain their unity government in power.

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During his US visit, President Ashraf Ghani also talked about his plans to hold peace talks with the Taliban with help from Pakistan. He obviously wanted to take the US government into confidence about the peace process and seek its blessings for the likely concessions his unity government could offer to the Taliban. The US, too, has been keen to bring the Taliban into the political mainstream and has refrained from labelling them as terrorists. The Obama administration even made it clear that post-2014 it would not target the Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar unless he and his men posed a direct threat to the US.

However, there are still hurdles in starting peace talks with the Taliban and there is skepticism regarding whether an agreement could be reached and implemented even if the dialogue got underway. Taliban attacks have continued and intensified in certain areas with the onset of warm weather after a harsh winter, and there is real concern that the fighting could spread and become bloodier this summer, in case a ceasefire isn’t reached once the peace talks begin. The recent Taliban attacks were strongly condemned by President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah and both gave a warning while still in the US that no peace talks could be held with all those intent on continuing the fight. In such a scenario, it will not be easy to start the proposed peace process and ensure its success.

After highlighting the thaw in Kabul’s relations with Islamabad and hoping to improve their ties, President Ashraf Ghani didn’t want to miss the opportunity to criticise Pakistan — this without naming it, but leaving nothing to the imagination. He argued that the war against terrorism could be won if all states, including those neighbouring Pakistan, made a sincere effort towards that end, instead of aiding and abetting militants and using terrorism to advance foreign policy goals. Such statements were meant to send a message to the US and its allies that the Afghan government wanted Pakistan to do more to bring the Taliban to the negotiations table and, in case of refusal, take decisive action against Mulla Omar and his aides as well as the Haqqani network.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s April  2015 issue.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.