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Why Pakistan needs to be in dialogue with Abdullah Abdullah

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It is time to heal the wounds of the past: With a mixed parentage of a Pashtun father and Tajik mother, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is best equipped to do this.

The total military expenditure on Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 is US$822billion, which includes the funds spent by the US Department of Defense, State Department, USAID and other government agencies. But the real costs might be much higher. The considerable human cost includes 2,300 US soldiers killed and 20,660 wounded, not counting those traumatised who cannot find their place in society again. 

According to Ashraf Ghani, since he became President in 2014, more than 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces and over 100,000 civilians have been killed, not counting the casualties of the Taliban.

After Daud Shah toppled his cousin King Zahir Shah and declared himself the first President of the Afghan Republic in 1973, relations with Pakistan became tense. The task of countering this emerging threat on its western borders was given to the Commander IGFC Brig (later Maj Gen) N K Babar. A number of Afghan students were given training by one of my childhood friends Maj (later Lt Col) Salman Ahmad of SSG in two camps in Pakistan in 1974. Among the students was Ahmad Shah Masood. Alongwith Salman in the Kandahar region during the Afghan war was Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, now the Taliban’s political leader heading their delegation in the peace talks in Doha. 

Trained in the Indian Military Academy, Stanikzai was commissioned in the Afghan Army. Joining the Mujahidin during the 80s he was in their Military Committee set up by Salman (codename "Col Faizan"). More than any other Pakistani serviceman in our history Salman has fought multiple battles for Pakistan. He says that among all the Afghans, Stanikzai accompanied him in most military operations against the Soviets. Incidentally Salman helped Sandy Gall make his famous BBC documentary, "Allah Against the Gunships". 

A distant dream for many years, peace is now within reach. In February 2020, the US reached a pragmatic agreement with the Taliban, while also signing a declaration with the government of Afghanistan to start an intra-Afghan peace process. 

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Notwithstanding the structure of the peace agreement and its fault-lines, without the help of Pakistan as a go-between, this agreement would not have been reached. With its own stake in the civil war in Afghanistan, Pakistan had to learn its lessons too. Pakistani politicians and military professionals have been putting their money and effort on the Pashtun horse in the race for changing the power balance. But this has cost Pakistan dearly. A flood of Afghan refugees created economic turmoil that has adversely affected Pakistan’s growth rate and other economic indicators. In addition, the militarization of our society fed by stolen US weaponry meant for Afghanistan, took a dangerous turn. Flourishing in Pakistani seminaries, “Jihadism” financed with external funds, resulted in the rise of a Pakistani Taliban force as an off-spring of the Afghan movement. 

Instead of recognizing the danger that was brewing in the underdeveloped and inadequately ruled tribal areas, the Pakistani military and intelligence put their trust and money in the Pashtun component of the Taliban movement, thus alienating the Tajik and Uzbek elements of Afghan society. 

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Silhouettes of soldiers during Military Mission at dusk

To add to this a cruel and selfish newcomer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was sent into the war in the 1990s by Pakistani intelligence. Basically, a Karuti from Paktia Province, Hekmatyar alienated Ahmad Shah Masood and others, at various times, fighting both against and aligning himself with almost every other group in Afghanistan. He ordered frequent attacks on other rival factions to weaken them in order to improve his own position in the post-Soviet power vacuum. This internecine rivalry led to his arranging the arrest of Ahmad Shah Masood in Pakistan in 1976 on trumped up spying charges. Masood and Hekmatyar once agreed to stage a takeover operation in the Panjshir valley, but Hekmatyar at the last minute refused to engage in his part of the offensive, leaving Masood open and vulnerable. Masood's forces barely escaped with their lives.

The Pashtun-Tajik problem started in 1929 when Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik leader, was a kingmaker and the power behind the Afghan throne whose advice was binding on the King. He overthrew King Amanullah Khan because he would not scale back his reforms opening Afghan society to western norms. Because of differences with Amanullah Khan, the long-time C-in-C, Nadir Shah, had gone into exile. From the border areas, now mostly comprising Pakistan, Nadir Shah created a Mehsud and Waziri tribal Lashkar and defeated Habibullah Kalakani’s forces. He then executed Kalakani and many members of his family by a firing squad. 

Unfortunately, the Lashkar then went on a rampage north of Kabul in the Tajik area, pillaging, looting and committing atrocities. The blood feud has lasted nearly a 100 years. It is time to heal the wounds of the past. With a mixed parentage of a Pashtun father and Tajik mother, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is best equipped to do this. 

Our unwise policy in Afghanistan during the 1990s allowing the US to use our ports, roads, air bases and other amenities added to our human and economic cost and alienated the Taliban also within Pakistan. Pakistan is still bearing the residuals of this failed policy. 

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s remaining influence was still enough to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Just a week ago after another period of harsh negotiations, the peace talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government, appear to be heading nowhere. That much was immediately clear during the very first meeting. 

The severe attacks of the Taliban against Afghan soldiers and security personnel only displays the continuing rift between the two. An additional difficulty is the fact that the anti-Taliban side is divided in itself. Both the first and the second presidential election – both severely marred – brought a close run for power between Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. 

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Pre-school children at a community-run childcare class in Injil district, outside Herat, 2011.

While Ashraf Ghani returned to Afghanistan after 24 years in December 2001 after leaving his posts at the UN and the World Bank and joined the new Afghan government as chief advisor to President Hamid Karzai on 1 February 2002, Abdullah Abdullah was a senior member of the Northern Alliance working as a close adviser to Ahmad Shah Masood. Later, he served as the Afghan Foreign Minister for nearly five years and stood against President Karzai and Ashraf Ghani twice (the last time in 2019) in elections and every time came second according to the official counting. Basedon the belief that the handling of the election and the vote counting were manipulated he rejected the official results and got himself sworn-in as President separately. 

During the “Afghanistan Re-Connected” dialogue series organised in the 2007-2012 period by the prestigious US think tank East-West Institute (EWI), I was designated as the EWI Director for Brussels and Berlin. I was privileged to have long conversations with both Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Both had tremendous grasp of domestic and international issues. While Ghani tended to be abrasive at times Dr Abdullah was always more cool, suave and accommodating. 

On a flight back from Berlin to Dubai, Dr Abdullah was by coincidence sitting next to me. When asked why he did not constructively engage with Pakistan, his reply stumped me: “Even if we want to, will Pakistan talk to us?” When I told the powers-that-be in Pakistan about Dr Abdullah Abdullah being far more pragmatic than other Afghans and that he had a genuine grievance against Pakistan which needed assuaging, I was asked to "shut up".

In the aftermath of the first of several controversial days of peace negotiations, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is now visiting Pakistan. As a young doctor he served briefly in Pakistan in 1985-86. This belated visit gives us a unique opportunity to rethink and perhaps rectify Pakistan’s Afghan policy. 

Pakistan needs a peaceful Afghanistan, it is a neighbour and this fact won’t change at any time in future. As the connecting link to Central Asia and Russia. Afghanistan plays an important role in the water and energy policy of the region. Without peace, no progress in those domains is possible. 

CPEC (and its extension to Iran) makes Afghanistan a vital link to Central Asia. Most of the 2 million or so Afghans would go back home if there was peace and a chance for a better life, this would certainly ease our economic burden. 

The peace between the Taliban and the US signals a rigorous withdrawal of US forces from the Afghan soil in line with President Trump’s policy of ‘America first’. Not happy with the situation the US military would like to keep a foot in the Afghan door by leaving behind some troops. In the aftermath of US withdrawal, fighting might still go on. We cannot afford the existing governmental structure in Afghanistan to collapse and a return to a vacuum in governance. So a fair-sized contingent of US troops must remain for some time. 

Ashraf Ghani serves the US better than Abdullah Abdullah and that is why the vote counting came out in his favour. However, Abdullah Abdullah is more a ‘son of the soil’ than Ghani, who sooner or later will return to the US. It would also suit Afghanistan and the region if it had a rather independent government. In an interconnected world, the present peace process, with India attempting to sabotage it by all means possible, is not only in the interest of all the countries of the region,but is certainly justified in our interest. 

The Foreign Office (and more so the ISI) must be applauded for arranging this extremely important and tremendous breakthrough. As the possible harbinger of peace, welcome to Pakistan Dr. Abdullah Abdullah! 


The writer is a defence and security analyst.