As India gears up to host the "Heart of Asia" conference in Delhi on April 26, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani addressed a joint session of the Parliament to make a historic speech, lambasting Pakistan for its failure to bring Taliban to negotiations.
He termed the "enemies of Afghanistan" as "alien hireling groups like Daesh, al Qaeda, murderous groups of Haqqani and parts of Taliban who enjoy shedding their countrymen's blood and continue the war and terrorism."
He has repeated many times in the past that Afghanistan does not want to fight anyone’s proxy war anymore.
Ghani reiterated that terrorism is an international problem and hence needs to be fought together. Referring to his predecessor Hamid Karzai’s releasing of some Taliban leaders, he said that the "time for unjustified amnesty" is over, calling on the execution of those involved in terror activities.
|Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani lashed out at Pakistan|
He also acknowledged his failure when he said that for the last one year he tried for peaceful solutions, but will also use all resources to defend the country.
Criticising Pakistan, he said that Afghan government will no longer seek Islamabad's help for peace talks, but expects them to take military actions against those using their soil for terror activities, noting that there is no distinction between "good" and "bad" terrorists.
He added that Afghanistan will be forced to register a formal complaint at UN’s Security Council against Pakistan, if it does not change its policy.
Despair after latest attack in Kabul
The mood is still gloomy in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan after the April 19 blasts in the heart of the capital that killed 64 and injured 347 others in what has come to be known as "Spring Offensive" that Taliban spearhead each year after a slight lull during winters.
It also sends out a clear message that Taliban is in no mood of a negotiated peace deal with the national unity government in Kabul, which is anyway weak and appears disunited. In any case why would Taliban even bother to talk to a government that many observers fear might implode from within very soon?
Even if some factions of Taliban are willing, there are way too many groups; the latest attack is believed to have been carried by the Haqqani network, so far not part of the negotiation. And then there is looming fear of spread of ISIS.
President Ghani’s address, broadcast live on television, has given some hope. In many ways he spoke what people were waiting to hear from their leader. His promise of electoral reforms and timely holding of the parliamentary elections, besides long-term security and financial planning was appreciated by many on social media.
Despite apprehensions in several quarters, 2014 had given new hopes after first peaceful transition in the recent history of the country, despite the delay due to corruption charges in the second round.
There was also a new-found nostalgia for the outgoing President Hamid Karzai, who led Afghanistan through very difficult times.
Economic stagnation, rising unemployment and deteriorating security situations, etc. have trampled all expectations as many people are once again fleeing the country due to uncertainty.
Growing opposition and speculation of implosion?
Surely Taliban and their violent attacks are not the only reasons for the despair as Afghans in general are feeling let down by their national unity government (NUG). Only weeks ago, US secretary of state John Kerry was forced to once again visit Kabul and meet President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah to save fragile agreement between the two Afghan leaders for a unity government.
Things have not been smooth between the two rivals-turned-allies as they appear to have disagreements over almost every issue. In fact, many people expressed their surprise on social media on the ominous absence of the CEO from the Parliament on April 25 during an important address
NUG has failed to appoint the crucial defence minister till date. Government has not been able to find replacement for the director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) since the last head, Rahmatullah Nabil, resigned over his differences with the president.
In his speech, Ghani promised to introduce candidates for both posts within a few days to the Parliament and urged the members for support.
Meanwhile, politicians who lost out in the last elections or who have had their differences with the current government have started mobilisation and are consolidating their positions while demanding dissolution of the NUG and a fresh election.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the voice of dissent is coming from inside the government itself.
The presidential special envoy for good governance, Ahmad Zia Massoud, younger brother of former Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, considered the "Lion of Panjshir", has been giving statements against stalemate. He is fast emerging as an important voice now, although till elections he did not have much influence among masses, even Tajiks, who saw Abdullah, old associate of his late elder brother, as their leader although he is half Pashtun.
Some of the old guards and former warlords led by Ustad Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, who was one of the presidential candidates in the first round in 2014, announced the formation of opposition group, Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council, a few months back.
Umer Daudzai, former interior minister, Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, former finance minister and others have retracted their support to the NUG and are now part of opposition that is demanding fresh election. When the country does not have enough money to generate employment, the demand of burdening it with another election can spiral into another decade of instability and conflict.
All this has fuelled speculation over whether the NUG would be able to survive beyond September, 2016 by which it was decided to call a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) for constitutional amendments to convert the ad hoc post of CEO to the office of the prime minister.
‘Worst humanitarian crisis since 2001’: What went wrong in Afghanistan?
Following the NATO drawdown, Afghanistan is undergoing its worst humanitarian crisis and the civilian casualty was highest last year since 2001, according to Jean-Nicolas Marti, the outgoing head of the International Red Cross.
Most Afghans are tired of three decades of conflict and are scared of replay of 1990s when civil war broke after the withdrawal of the USSR.
Ordinary citizens seek only peaceful survival unlike elites who have greater stakes. Afghan elites benefitted most in the last two decades; besides plum posts, many of them won lucrative business contracts in past one decade and their children went abroad to study in Ivy League universities.
Some of them returned back and have easily managed to secure top government posts with handsome salaries and easy access to powers although they are still in their late twenties and early thirties. From becoming ministers and their deputies to advisors in the Afghan National Security Council.
Representation by young blood, after all, is not such a negative thing in a country where nearly 70 per cent of the population are below 30 years.
Despite bold speech and threats, the fact is even the combined NATO forces could not win over Taliban in 15 years although they did have initial successes. The latest attack by Taliban is a sign of how strong different factions are still even after 15 years of "war on terror" and billions of dollars of international aid meant at stabilising the conflict-ridden country.
Anand Gopal’s fascinating book, No Good Men Among the Living: The Taliban and the War through Afghan Eyes captures beautifully the follies America committed, often putting faith in wrong and corrupt warlords and how it missed opportunities when several senior Taliban leaders were willing to surrender.
This is perhaps one of the most critical phases in transition of Afghanistan. With foreign aid gradually drying up, the country needs to learn to stand on its own, and maintain its security.
Of course they would still need long-term financial, logistic and security support, but the country needs to manage the driving seat on its own.
In October there is a crucial Brussels Conference on Afghanistan where about 70 countries and international organisations will attend the summit and will renew their pledges to Kabul.
Long way to peace?
With all its faults, the NUG appears to be the best bet with a former academician and author of Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World leading the country.
He has taken some commendable measures on economic front, and has a vision to make Afghanistan a "roundabout" in the "Heart of Asia" connecting west, south and central Asia for trade and commerce as it used to be.
The Istanbul Process or "Heart of Asia" conference, initiated in 2011 in Turkey, aims at exactly that.
After last year’s fifth ministerial level conference in Islamabad, the April 26 secretary level talks hence assumes greater significance as this may never be possible unless regional players and international community stop playing strategic games and cooperate for sustained peace and stability.
The biggest test for the current government in Kabul remains fighting corruption and convincing all armed groups to come to the negotiating table.
In this it needs the support of the foreign players, most importantly, the USA and China who could force Pakistan to stop playing double games with Taliban.
Besides, within the country, political leaders as well as the Parliament must not indulge in petty politics at such a crucial juncture. While acting united to put pressure on Taliban for negotiation, Afghan politicians must not let the country slide into chaos.
Karzai, as former president, too must shun political ambition and should act as a peace broker rather than another power centre. The vibrant civil society that has emerged in the last one decade too must realise that without a stable state, they cannot really function.
Hence, instead of confronting the already fragile government, they too need to play a more constructive role.
NUG too must also act in the larger interests of the nation and respect the terms of the agreement. The political deficit within the country is a big concern and to effectively tackle it, the government needs to be more accountable and effective.
Ghani and Abdullah may have divergent views on everything else, but they agree on one thing: to continue the coalition government.
The two hence must sort out their difference lest they miss out a historic opportunity and the country remains in perpetual crisis.