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Opinion and Editorial

Changing Realities in Afghanistan

Filed on November 2, 2008

The outcome of the 50-member Afghan jirga that recently concluded in Islamabad has revived hopes of peace in the region.

Apart from underscoring the need for peace and cooperation on the world’s most turbulent frontier, the jirga has urged Afghanistan and Pakistan to talk to Taleban. Though this is not something new to come from the tribal elders anyway, what makes this call interesting is the fact that the demand came from tribal chieftains who have for long fought turf battles with Taleban.

Revival of jirga and dialogue culture is a welcome development, as it rejects the US approach of forcing solutions and paves way for a genuinely democratic culture.

The new thinking is also a consequence of the war fatigue among the tribesmen on both sides of the divide but also big stakeholders such as the United States, the Nato and the Afghan government. All those who had demonised Pakistan for talking to Taleban in its own restive tribal areas are now pushing for a similar approach in Afghanistan as well.

The realisation comes on the heels of two important political developments: Pakistani parliament passing a unanimous resolution demanding a rethink of the war on terror policy and dialogue with the militants; and secondly President Karzai too inviting the Taleban for a possible power-sharing with a couple of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.

Yet this jirga lacked two fundamental features. There was no Taleban representation and there were not many Pakhtoons from Afghanistan. It was mostly a show of the Northern Alliance warlords who are a spent force in any case. Given the periphery factors of Nato calling it quits, and refusing to engage the insurgents in hot pursuits, coupled with the dawn of new military thinking espoused by the US commander General David Petraeus and his likes to opt for a political and diplomatic way out, Kabul and Washington have been left with little choice. Either replace the war on terror bogey with a sustained political engagement or stake a Waterloo-like situation.

The interceding on part of Saudi Arabia by hosting talks between the Afghan government and Taleban in Makkah and Pentagon’s desire to ‘reconcile’ with the student militia are welcome signs indeed. The new equation boils down to the reality that stakeholders do not see it as an anathema to hold direct talks with Taleban.

But the flip side of the rosy story has a maximalist position as well. Afghan Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has termed the dialogue ‘worthless’ as long as ‘foreign troops remain’ in Afghanistan. So are the hopes foredoomed? Certainly, not.

There is still a way out. Here comes the role of the power chessboard in the region. Russia, China, India, Iran and the Central Asian republics should step in to help build a new order in the war-torn country, and the region at large. Without taking sides, the powers that be can help broker a permanent peace. Afghanistan should be seen as South Asia’s Switzerland, promising it characteristics of neutrality, non-belligerence and sovereignty.

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