News - Afghanistan
In an exclusive interview with TOLOnews' Lotfullah Najafizada, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and best-selling foreign policy author, discussed the new found cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad and the commitment to fighting terrorism.
Rashid said he had seen a shift, by both parties, but especially by Pakistan who appears to have reached out to President Ashraf Ghani in an attempt to bring the Afghan Taliban to the table for talks.
"We saw this in the visit last week by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It was the first time a Pakistani leader has called the Afghan Taliban an enemy of Pakistan. So I think all the rhetoric is very positive and hopefully it will lead to more positive action."
He said he thinks there has already been an upswing in cooperation by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI) but went on to say that in line with this more work was needed.
"I think there has not been any attempt yet to stop the flow of men and weapons and materials (across the border into Afghanistan) with the present Taliban offensive that's going on inside Afghanistan."
He did however point a finger at Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif who he said is powerful and made a promise to bring the Taliban to the peace talks table by March. "But that has not happened yet," he said.
With regards to Afghanistan's political position, he said: "I think the weaknesses have been internal and that there is the constant suspicion that President Ghani is very weak, (that) he is not handling the situation properly – that Afghanistan still does not have a defense minister or governors in the provinces."
He said this was an internal problem but nonetheless a problem as important and as dangerous at the external crisis of the Taliban.
When asked by Najafizada why he thought Pakistan was now prepared to play a constructive role in Afghanistan's future – a role it has avoided in the past 13 years – his answer was quite simple. He put it down to Pakistan feeling the threat of terror.
"I don't think it's about Ghani. I think the change has happened within the military which has always controlled Afghanistan's policy and really I think the losses that Pakistan is feeling from terrorists has woken up the establishment – military and political leaders– that Pakistan could think further and become something like Syria or Iraq ... If the military does not stop this incredible escalation in terrorism."
He said the root cause of terrorism in the area was the growth of the Pakistani Taliban who have developed sanctuaries in tribal areas and in Waziristan. "They have been able to give safe havens to groups from all over the world.
"Now what we have for the first time is a full throttle military offensive in north Waziristan to drive out these militants. It has been very successful except for the fact that many of these militants have crossed over the border and are now in Afghanistan. But they have only gone to help the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan," he said.
Interestingly he went on to say that if there had been better coordination earlier between Afghanistan and Pakistan armies and together they had taken a decision – especially while the American forces were still in Afghanistan – then "we wouldn't have seen this kind of leakage that is happening along the border."
Asked how concerned Afghanistan and Pakistan government's should be over the issue of thousands of international terrorists having crossed the border into Afghanistan in the past few months, Rashid said it was a very worrying situation.
"I think it is very alarming. I have not seen such a Taliban offensive in Afghanistan since 2003," he said adding that it was by far the most extreme and most violent summer offensive that was currently underway "right across Afghanistan."
"It is an incredible offensive because for the first time Taliban has launched what is a nationwide uprising."
He went on to say the Afghan army is very stretched and that the Taliban is following the military tactics of Daesh. He pointed out that as with Syria and Iraq, Daesh was ignoring borders – as they are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "They ignore borders between countries and use both countries (Syria and Iraq) as a battlefield. Taliban are doing the same thing here – using both Pakistan and Afghanistan as a battlefield and ignoring the borders between the two countries."
Again he drew parallels with the Syrian and Iraq wars and said: "We see with Isis in Syria and Iraq when they are under pressure in one place they go and attack in another. This is what we have seen in Afghanistan in the last two months. We have seen the battlefields shifting – wherever pressure comes, wherever the Afghan army moves in we have seen the Taliban move and attack in another direction altogether."
On the issue of whether Afghanistan's Taliban aided by international terrorists would be able to gain more territory inside the country this year Rashid's answer was a definite yes. "Unfortunately I do see the Taliban taking more territory and if there is no move towards peace talks, which are still an option I think, the government could be faced with a much greater loss of territory than even today."
He said he sees two major problems that need to be addressed. One being the military problem. The military is now facing a Taliban insurgency that boasts reinforced militants of foreign nationality that have arrived in the country from Pakistan. The second being that the country is facing an internal crisis. "The National Unity Government has not been able to get its act together," he said.
On the issue of the government, he said it has failed to make serious and necessary appointments and that it has failed to unify the nation. "It has not been able to set up a proper government and appoint the right people and this vacuum is also demoralizing many people in Afghanistan," he said adding that this was also demoralizing to Afghanistan's neighbors and to the international community.
Questioned why Pakistan has had a policy shift and declared the Taliban an enemy, especially in light of recent claims that the country questions the sustainability of the National Unity Government, Rashid said that the issue of sustainability was a factor especially as government was not able to get to grips with issues of governance but said he believed Pakistan made a major mistake in failing to deliver the Taliban to the peach talks table.
He says it is clear the Taliban are becoming more stubborn and are first testing the battlefields to see what type of progress they can make. "If they do talk to Kabul they want to talk from a position of strength. So you are going to see more fighting this summer and territory will be taken by the Taliban."
But in all fairness to Ghani, Rashid said that the president has faced the problem of Pakistan promising one thing and not delivering on it.
Asked whether Kabul's expectations on the peace talks issue was too high, Rashid said that the "deal was struck last year by Gen. Sharif and he informed the international community that there had been a change of heart and that Pakistan would deliver the Taliban".
"I think Ghani has to continue to pursue peace talks policy and we can only hope for success. We have at least had one round of these talks by Pugwash a few weeks ago. I hope the Taliban and Afghan governments will let a 3rd neutral player help bring the two sides together so we can move towards some sort of ceasefire."
On the issue of pressure on the Afghan Taliban he said there are dozens of militant extremist groups living in Pakistan. "So I think the failure really has been that Pakistan does not control the Taliban but Pakistan could be exerting pressure."
"Pressure is needed by Pakistan but the question is can Pakistan afford to take that risk. Its army is very overstretched," he said referring especially to the military offensive in Waziristan.
On the issue of short and medium terms goals on the part of Kabul, Rashid said that a good start would be a ramped up level of cooperation on an intelligence level. He also said that a good start would be for Kabul to tackle the issue of senior Taliban leaders living in Nuristan and Badakhshan provinces. These included Afghan Taliban leaders as well as Pakistani Taliban leaders.
He suggested a joint military operation by both armies to capture these insurgent leaders.
In conclusion, he said Pakistan needs to support any peace initiative with the Taliban no matter who it is with and most importantly stop blaming India for everything that goes wrong in Afghanistan. No third party should be used to blame another country's failure, he said.