Secretary of State John Kerry had several important messages to deliver to Pakistani leaders this week in Islamabad, but one stood out in terms of its strategic significance: The U.S. is not leaving Afghanistan any time soon. He expressed strong confidence that a security agreement will soon be signed with Kabul allowing a residual U.S. (and NATO) force to stay on after 2014.
That was not what Taliban backers and radical militants wanted to hear.
With the U.S. clarifying its Afghanistan position, Pakistan’s military establishment and the new civilian government now have a unique opportunity to revisit and adjust their longstanding policy toward their beleaguered Western neighbor. By doing so, Pakistan can break with passé policies of strategic tolerance of militant sanctuaries and support networks on their soil, push reconcilable Taliban toward meaningful talks, reduce the threat of militancy within its own borders, engage in an open and forward-looking dialogue to address border and water issues, and focus on cooperation and regional economic integration at a time when economic prospects are dim and millions of dissatisfied people are on the verge of despair.
For that to happen, now is the time for President Obama to spell out the post-2014 U.S. commitment in terms of troop numbers and effective assistance to help Afghans stand on their own, safely undergo a complex transition period, be assured of long-term international assistance, and eventually reach a just peace accord with reconcilable armed militants—if there are any to be found.
The latest Pentagon estimate that Afghan forces will need U.S. assistance for several more years after the end of the current mission is a clear indicator of job-not-done. Leaving behind a fragile and unstable Afghanistan serves no strategic or clever purpose.
In Afghanistan, now is the time for President Karzai to visit Pakistan one more time (date expected to be announced soon) with a coherent policy that can garner the backing of the Afghan people, can provide the Pakistanis with a clear vision for peace and good-neighborliness, and is not tied to short-term political advantage. He needs to think long and beyond the next Afghan elections scheduled for April 2014.
Since a Loya Jirga convened in 2011 has already agreed to a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership framework, Karzai should engage in high-level political consultations at home and allow the Afghan parliament to legitimize the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. instead of taking the route of a second controversial Loya Jirga as he has indicated.
Both the U.S. and Afghan governments would also be better served if they adopted a more constructive and trusting working relationship over the critical year ahead.
As far as the Taliban are concerned, this is the time for their mystery-shrouded pro-reconciliation lobby to prove its credentials, speak up, and push for a change in tactics within the movement. That means stop the killing frenzy. Afghans will not agree to reconcile with cold-blooded murderers, unless they can prove otherwise. The latest United Nations figures show a staggering increase of 23 percent in civilian losses over the past six months. What is more troubling is that more than 75 percent of deaths are caused by Taliban/militant attacks.
If they are unable to convince the hardliners in their midst to stop killing innocent fellow Muslims, then it is their Islamic duty to walk away or fight them to prove to other Afghans that there really is a faction preferring peace talks over continued conflict. This lobby cannot continue to have their cake and eat it too.
Concerning the hardcore wing of the militancy, they will continue to fight, kill and destroy. They will fight Western interests opportunistically, send men to other combat zones, including Syria, and increasingly engage in sectarian strife. They are organic allies of al Qaeda, Central Asian jihadists and other like-minded terrorist groups.
If the Afghan and Pakistani governments can break the ice, aim for genuine rapprochement, and build up mutual trust based on a paradigm shift in Islamabad and a balanced approach by Kabul, then they could join hands in fighting these elements on both sides of the border and in return receive generous international assistance.
But if the game is to let the war linger for some Machiavellian reason, be tempted to use Sunni radicals against Shia extremists in the region, aim for a zero-sum outcome and risk stability in South-Central Asia for many years to come, then we might end up with a lose-lose scenario.
Secretary Kerry’s message to his friends in Pakistan has resonance across the region and beyond. The ball is squarely in the Pakistani court, and now is the time to engage in deep strategic soul-searching and reconfiguration. Much is at stake for the sake of peace, justice and prosperity in that part of the world.
Omar Samad is Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, President of Silkroad Consulting, and former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada.