Decentralised chaos

It is a great sight: Pakistan and Afghanistan security kingpins sitting together trying to iron out differences. Even better is to hear Abdullah Abdullah, Kabul’s significant co-sharer of power with President Ashraf Ghani and a habitual critic of the Pakistan Army and the ISI, indicate timelines by which the Taliban will agree to join the talks. No less reassuring is the Chinese wielding formidable influence with Pakistan to make peace efforts worthwhile and the US trying to keep the dynamics of dialogue going from across the border.

Yet no matter how and where the talks table is set, and regardless of how many sides there are to it, the future of peace in Islamabad’s ravaged neighbourhood depends critically on who speaks on behalf of the Taliban, and how united their ranks are both in and off the battlefield. Unfortunately, on both fronts the situation warrants more pessimism than optimism. Enigmatic, unpredictable, atomised and metastasized, the Taliban have become everyone’s nightmare. Bringing them to the table and getting a consensus out of them to underwrite a workable peace accord is a task that seems, to say the least, a very tall order.

If this were the early 1990s, this assertion would have been laughable. Then ideology, ambition and regional patronage propelled familiar names in the fray to fame. The north belonged to one group, the south and the east to another. The western and central parts of Afghanistan had pockets of different ethnic groups and their warlords. In each region, the command lines were clearly defined. Any friend or foe who was desirous of walking in and talking for whatever purpose needed to know a few names, their interests to get the game going.

It changed completely when the Taliban took over: Afghanistan became a byword for Mullah Omar and his policy fatwas. Life was easy. It was a one-window operation to deal with Afghanistan.

Even when the Taliban regime was ousted post-9/11, their organisational and leadership influence survived the destruction of their government. You could still think of Afghanistan in broad categories with the Quetta Shura on one side of it and the remains of the Northern Alliance, now ascendant, on the other. There was one change, however: the international plan to reconstruct the state and society of Afghanistan had become a full-blown reality. Kabul had become a hub of international interests and because it controlled money, resources and armies of over three dozen countries and because this alliance had global reach, the ‘third factor’ had come into play.

Anything planned for Afghanistan first and foremost had to have to approval of Isaf and Nato (read: Washington), without which neither war nor peace could be pursued with any reasonable measure of sustainability. The Taliban were enemy number one, and therefore at least in the first few years of the US-led operations in Afghanistan, they looked like a marginal factor from the point of view negotiators. Pakistan, because of its engagement with the Quetta Shura, was clubbed with this marginal factor. Afghanistan was still a simple equation: the government in Kabul, Western powers, and the distant third in importance, the Quetta Shura – which, it was assumed, could be neutralised by bending and browbeating Islamabad.

Things have changed since – and radically. Mullah Omar is dead; Mullah Mansoor is in charge – of sorts; Taliban factions and local groups are gaining both territory and influence across the country; the drugs business is flourishing; weapons are pouring in as before; the global military coalition is over as almost all significant members have pulled out; Washington, while insisting it is not leaving, has certainly checked out after paying a two-trillion dollar bill and many thousands dead as a cost of its self-defeating stay; Kabul is losing money, support and institutional backing from its foreign friends which had helped it retain a pretension of a functioning government; India and China with their money and their motives (different and competing) are filling the vacuum of resources, meeting decades-old addiction to external help for reconstruction and development.

Iran, free from sanctions and loaded, is looking to extend its sphere of influence. Not so far and not so uninterested either is Moscow whose assertive leadership doesn’t want to leave this battle-ground of global power-play to the whims of Washington. The Taliban movement, despite its projection to the contrary, is not a unified entity. Internal rivalries have destroyed harmony. All reports from Afghanistan’s killing fields suggest deep fragmentation and constantly changing adjustments among groups that are no longer tied to the command structure of any shura in the strict sense of the word.

The advent of the Islamic State (one of the many core reasons why Beijing and Moscow see Afghanistan as a near-post of Washington’s silent and long war against their interests) has created another centre of power within Afghanistan’s combat zones, splitting up resources and breaking down old loyalties.

An apt caption to this snapshot of the new Afghanistan is ‘decentralised chaos’, whose complexities are unknown even to those who have spent a lifetime studying the subject or who have tried to manage its affairs as diplomats and politicians. It takes exceptional courage or foolishness to believe that this broken-up place can be converted into a system that is not only functional but also violence-free. The fact is that Afghanistan is not moving on the road to stability. It is not in the best of diplomatic hands. There isn’t enough commonality of interests among its various stakeholders to entertain the hope that negotiations can yield results.

For Islamabad, Afghanistan’s expanding disorder raises red flags – which won’t be lowered by being a central figure in the talks. Even the talks create tough problems for Islamabad. The international expectation is that the Taliban are just a phone call away from their handlers. They will do so if the ISI says so. This is not the case. The Taliban, now factionalised and spread deep into Afghanistan’s badlands of war and local conflict, aren’t sitting by the phone waiting for their next orders from Aabpara. They are busy adjusting to new realities that they know matter more to them than what Islamabad’s interests are.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s Afghanistan managers continue to pretend that they have ‘cards’ in their hands, which in reality is little more than bombastic bluff designed to generate impact and to ‘stay relevant’ to the dialogue process. This egregious deception is now hanging around our neck like a heavy stone that we can neither lift nor take off. What can we do then?

We can start by admitting that we cannot ‘deliver’ the Taliban. This honesty should be backed by sustained effort and attention on the most neglected and yet most significant aspect of our influence and role in Afghanistan’s endless endgame: management of the border. This long and treacherous line dividing the two countries has been our real nightmare. Strangely, though, is also the best hope we have to shape Afghanistan’s realities.

On the nightmare side, terrorism, drugs, the Taliban, refugees, regional conspiracies – everything comes from this border. On the hope side, a better managed border that has been cleansed of no-go areas and alleged sanctuaries, and through which all trade, transportation, besides goods and services, must pass with documentation gives us tremendous leverage on the negotiating table. Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Its life flows the way of the Kabul River and nothing can change this fact of geography. Controlling and commanding the border means controlling and commanding events across the border.

This means that we will have to elevate border management from being one of the important aims of our Afghan policy to the most important element of policy. We will have to revise and revisit the idea that ‘open borders’ and linkages going across this region and all the way to central Asia and Europe somehow will bring in a bright future. Ask the Europeans how they feel about their free-border project now. At any rate, a better managed border is not a closed border and we can work on this distinction to secure the north-western frontier and further towards Balochistan.

With a porous border, trouble will flow freely our way and, regardless of how many rounds of negotiations we have, it won’t stop hurting us deeply.

Source: The News. Date: February 8, 2016