Interview: Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy

How has Afghanistan’s foreign policy evolved under President Ashraf Ghani?

Interview: Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy

Abbas Daiyar is an Afghan political analyst and former member of the editorial board at the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. His commentaries have appeared on BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Al Jazeera and other media outlets. He is currently pursuing studies at the Graduate Institute of Geneva.

How do you view Afghanistan’s foreign policy?

For the last decade, under the previous Karzai administration, Afghanistan lacked a consistent foreign policy due to several factors, including the lack of a long-term strategy and vision for the future of the country, and an uncertainty of the commitment of the U.S.-led NATO coalition. A visionary leadership could have made the best of the available financial and diplomatic support of the international community to put Afghanistan on the path of stability as a dignified sovereign state. Unfortunately, a historic opportunity has been lost. Our relations with our immediate neighbors have not changed much in the last decade. They still view and treat Afghanistan as a sub-state.

How has approach of the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to his country’s foreign policy differed from that of his predecessor Hamid Karzai?

Despite the huge challenges of a messy domestic political environment and challenges for the National Unity Government, President Ghani has embarked on a robust and ambitious [vision based on Afghanistan’s] location in the heart of Asia. At the core of his vision is an economic program to integrate Afghanistan as a corridor of trade and cooperation connecting South, Central and West Asia. However, the geopolitical realities are too complex to allow smooth implementation of the vision.

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With President Ghani came a major policy shift toward Pakistan that has created optimistic hype in Kabul. Recognizing their unavoidable influence on the Taliban leadership, and inevitable role in an eventual peace settlement with the insurgents, President Ghani’s approach risks distancing significant allies such as India that have made a considerable contribution to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, as well as our neighbor Iran. Soon after coming to office, Ghani launched efforts to persuade China and Saudi Arabia to put pressure on Pakistan to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table with the hope of reaching a deal with insurgents so that peace and security – fundamental requirements for his economic integration program – are achieved. But this strategy needs a carefully calculated approach that requires constant reevaluation in the face of ever-changing geopolitical realities in the region.

President Ghani’s first major foreign policy blunder came last week when his office in a statement announced “full support” for the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s attack in Yemen. This was in response to the Saudi King’s request, appeasing them as part of the president’s efforts for peace talks with Taliban. It is naïve to believe third-state pressure will be more efficient to persuade Pakistan to cooperate on talks with the Taliban. It should be pursued with a spirit of exclusive mutual understanding based on long-term stability and cooperation that address fundamental issues such as the Durand Line and water resources. On these existential issues, Islamabad will not respond to pressure from Riyadh or Beijing.

President Ghani’s support for the Saudi-led attack in Yemen has already triggered a barrage of domestic criticism, including from his partners in the National Unity Government. He bypassed them and national institutions such as the parliament in a hasty and ill-judged decision that could have consequences for Afghanistan both domestically and in relations with our neighbors.

What are your thoughts on Ghani’s visit to Washington, D.C.? Could this visit be a new chapter in U.S-Afghanistan relations?

President Ghani has lived in the U.S. as an academic and senior technocrat for over two decades, so he has many well-wishers in D.C. He has been a welcome relief for the White House, compared with his predecessor Karzai’s bipolar brinkmanship, which took the relationship with Washington to the edge. Karzai’s anti-U.S. tirades and refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement was a factor in U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to drawdown the level of troops in Afghanistan to a few thousand by the end of current year. That decision has been reversed now and the current level of 9800 troops will be kept, a success achieved in President Ghani’s recent visit that is vital for the anticipated bloody summer fighting season with the insurgents.

Renewed development assistance, and a firm commitment for continued funding and support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was the second item on President Ghani’s agenda. In his speech to the joint session of Congress, he emphasized the security challenges to persuade U.S. lawmakers for continued approval of funding for ANSF through 2017. He also secured the New Development Partnership, under which the U.S. government has announced to make up to $800 million available to the initiative to support President Ghani’s program of transition to self-reliance, linking it to specific reforms in combating corruption, promoting rule of law, strengthening women’s rights, and enhancing private sector growth

So the president has had a good start with his effort to revive and improve relations with Washington, which is fundamental for his smooth transition plan and vision for regional integration.

How do you view Afghanistan-Pakistan relations?

Since President Ghani’s came to office, one of the major foreign policy shifts in Kabul has been toward Pakistan. Aiming at a fundamental transformation of mutual Afghan-Pak relations, President Ghani’s objective is to persuade Pakistan to deny sanctuary to the Taliban leadership and push them to negotiate with the Afghan government. There has been a rush of positive gestures between Kabul and Islamabad. However, both sides are in fact playing the game of maximizing short-term gains by leaving fundamental issues such as the Durand Line and water resource management untouched. Pakistan’s priority is to deal with its internal security threats from the Pakistani Taliban factions. Islamabad has yet to deliver any significant step forward, given its ability to persuade and push Taliban leadership for a peace settlement with Kabul. President Ghani needs to set a firm deadline on this.

For a lasting outcome, both sides have to start a broad discussion on fundamental issues and cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan that can bring stability and prosperity for the region.

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How do you see the efforts of the Afghan government to engage the Taliban in peace talks?

Negotiations with the Taliban have been a top priority for President Ghani, as it was for his predecessor Karzai. His major shift towards rapprochement with Pakistan is aimed at a successful settlement with the Taliban, a strategy that was once followed by Karzai too, to no avail. The success of talks will largely depend on how sincerely Pakistan uses its influence to push Taliban leadership for a settlement and deny them sanctuary, and for that, how far President Ghani can go to meet Islamabad’s demands in return. Even if the Taliban leadership or a major faction does eventually start official negotiations, which is likely, there will still be groups who will rebel against the decision and continue fighting. However, it will be a major breakthrough if Taliban leader Mullah Omar approves of official talks with the National Unity Government, and there will be greater political will and popular support in dealing militarily with militants who continue fighting.

Is the Islamic State gaining a foothold in Afghanistan?

Afghan officials have confirmed that some Taliban commanders who had earlier announced allegiance to the Islamic State are making recruitment efforts. A group of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters have also pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. An IS affiliated group of former Taliban commanders was behind the targeted kidnapping of 30 Hazara Shiite passengers in Zabul province.

In his speech to Congress, President Ghani clearly warned of the serious threat of IS making inroads in Afghanistan as part of their mythical narrative.

After the Pakistan Army launched its operations in Waziristan, hundreds of Arab and Central Asian Jihadis flocked into Afghanistan. Those international terrorists and Taliban militants disenchanted with their leadership are fertile recruitment targets for the Islamic State. They might also aim to infiltrate and influence radical fundamentalist but non-violent groups active across Afghanistan in charity and religious education services.

Muhammad Akbar Notezai is a columnist at the Daily Times. Visit his blog or follow him on Twitter @Akbar_notezai. He can be reached at [email protected].