By Sher Jan Ahmadzai and Thomas Gouttierre, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sher Jan Ahmadzai is a research associate, and Thomas Gouttierre is director, of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views expressed are their own.
The Afghan peace process and talks with the Taliban were high on the agenda during Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Amman last month. But the key question is whether the Afghan government is gradually being cut out of its own country’s development.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship – and the flow of billions dollars of aid money to Islamabad – already leaves many Afghans suspicious. This is not surprising considering al Qaeda and Taliban leaders including Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have been found in Pakistani cities and tribal areas. Such assistance has left many Afghans with the feeling that the U.S. is closer to Pakistan than its real ally in the war against terrorists, namely Afghanistan.
Such concerns may be compounded by recent statements coming out of Islamabad calling Afghan President Hamid Karzai an impediment to peace talks with the Taliban, talk that suggests Pakistan may be pushing for the kind of direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S. that would essentially exclude the Afghan government.
These developments have been the cause of serious concern within the Afghan government, which unsurprisingly wants to ensure peace talks are an Afghan-led process. Indeed, Karzai has made clear that to do otherwise would undermine the prospects for a long-lasting peace in the region.
These concerns seem valid. Karzai believes, as do most Afghans, that the Afghan government should play an integral role in peace talks and negotiations with the Taliban, and that without the Afghan government as a central partner, any progress won’t be sustainable after talks have concluded.
One only need look to recent history to see the danger of excluding the government. During and after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghan Mujahidin were strongly discouraged by Pakistan from talking directly with the government of Dr. Najibullah in Afghanistan. As a result, the Soviet Union, United States and Pakistan started mapping out post-Soviet Afghanistan without adequate input from the Afghan government in Kabul and the Mujahideen, with Afghan Mujahideen leaders dismissed by Pakistan as lacking the necessary diplomatic and political skills to negotiate themselves.
But contrary to expectations at that time, Najibullah’s government was able to survive for three more years after the Soviet withdrawal, before collapsing in 1992. The Afghan national security forces were eventually dissolved, Kabul was indiscriminately shelled by all Mujahideen factions, and the country was engulfed in civil war.
The danger in today’s process of not including all those directly involved in the conflict should therefore be clear. As was the case with the Mujahideen two decades ago, insurgent Taliban groups are widely seen as receiving support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and to be planning deadly attacks from safe havens in Pakistan against Afghan soldiers and civilians.
But allowing Pakistan to steer peace talks in Afghanistan as it did in the 1990s is not only against the interests of Afghanistan, but those of the United States as well. As Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin recently noted, “Pakistan’s concept of the peace process is one that will reverse the achievement of the last 10 years that will negate the centrality of the Afghan state.”
The foundations for a sustainable peace in Afghanistan must be constructed around the leadership and active participation of established institutions inside Afghanistan. But the only really suitable such institution is the government that was duly elected by the people of Afghanistan and which has been able to evolve thanks to the efforts of Afghans and their international allies.
Of course, direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban should not mean stakeholders such as Pakistan are excluded from peace talks. After all, as a neighbor and frequent safe haven for Taliban elements, Pakistan can play a key role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. But despite the widely held perception of the Afghan government as weak and corrupt, no other entity has the authority to replace it.
Afghanistan’s history has many lessons on the danger of excluding vital parties from the search for peace. The question now is whether the United States and its allies will heed them.