Peace will not come to Afghanistan until it develops an effective government that is able to come to terms with its neighbor Pakistan.
As Taliban violence and peace talks simultaneously dominate headlines, it becomes increasingly clear that if there is to be a brighter future for Afghanistan, it needs to come from progress in the country’s combative relationship with Pakistan and a revamping of Afghanistan’s own government.
Shortly after a Taliban official claimed that progress had been made during talks with senior Afghan politicians in Moscow, suicide bombs shook Kabul. First, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to a military training center in the Afghan capital, killing at least six people. Then a car bomb targeting a U.S. convoy exploded in an eastern Kabul neighborhood, leaving four Afghan civilians dead and seven wounded, including four American forces. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took responsibility for the attack.
Since October, U.S. officials have held six rounds of talks with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, in a bid to end the 18-year war. Those meetings have yet to produce a tangible result. Afghans worry that a bad deal may result in a loss of what has been gained over the past 18 years, especially in terms of human rights and civil liberties.
But if we could measure the speed of political turmoil in a country with a wind flag indicator, as done at airports and ship docks, Afghanistan’s political flag indicator would be whipping violently.
The clashes between Pakistan and Afghanistan can be boiled down to three major issues: the harboring of terrorists, the threat of losing water resources, and the dispute over borders.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the “center of Taliban terrorism is in Pakistan,” adding that his government is still “waiting for clear action” from his neighbor country to deal with it. The persistent terrorist attacks and bombings indicate that little if anything is being done about it in Pakistan.
The dispute over water has its roots in India and potentially affects both Afghanistan and Pakistan. New Delhi is funding an ambitious dam near Kabul that could reduce water flow to its rival downstream. “The project could spark the world’s next conflict and further reduce water flow into Pakistan,” writes Elizabeth Hessami in Foreign Policy.
She points out that the rapid expansion of Kabul’s population and extreme drought conditions have exacerbated the need for new water infrastructure, but building the dam is politically complicated because the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is defined by a complex maze of transboundary rivers, and there is no legal framework in place to avoid major conflict between the nations.
Afghanistan’s pressing needs do little to diminish Pakistan’s anxieties, as both countries are water-stressed and depend on the Kabul River for drinking water, irrigation and power generation.
That’s a threat to a country like Pakistan, which is highly dependent on agriculture. A World Resources Institute report states that Pakistan could become the most water-stressed nation in the region by 2040, even before accounting for the potential of reduced water flow from the Kabul River dam.
Aside from that, Pakistan is concerned about the close geopolitical relationships between Afghanistan and India and sees that as a threat to its national security.
The third issue is a border dispute that dates back to 1893, when territory called Pashtunistan was annexed to then-British India. The treaty created what is known as the Durand Line, a border that put Pashtunistan in Pakistan. To this day, Afghanistan does not recognize that border. Ever since, the two countries have exchanged bitter words and occasionally gunfire, each accusing the other of interfering with their domestic affairs.
Afghanistan can never feel secure as long as Pakistan feels insecure.
Add to this mix a centralized government in Afghanistan that is plagued by corruption, an ailing economy, and micromanagement.
The crises in Afghanistan will not end unless all these vital issues are resolved.
Many Americans believe victory in the Afghanistan war hinges on the amount of money and soldiers the U.S. pours into the cause: more of both would lead to quicker peace. What those Americans don’t understand is that Afghanistan will never be stable until it and Pakistan embrace significant change.
Jared Diamond, in his book Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, writes that the key for individuals coping with a crisis is “selective change.” People who successfully overcome a problem tend to identify and isolate it, figuring out “which parts of their identities are already functioning well and don’t need changing, and which parts are no longer working and do need changing.” Could the same be true for countries? Diamond believes so.
Pakistan may continue to send Taliban negotiators to peace conferences, but they’re not likely to succeed given the current political climate in the region. Both sides would have to make concessions and changes.
Failing that, these multiple crises will remain unsolved. Pakistan will continue to use the Taliban as its proxies to achieve objectives, further weakening a Kabul government that is already flawed.
To paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger: Peace is not at hand.