ON THE face of it, prospects for lasting peace in Afghanistan look as bleak as at any time in the 13 years since NATO-led forces ousted the Taliban-only for them to regroup in a long, bloody insurgency. Last year a record 3,700 civilians died in the fighting. As America and other NATO countries pull out their troops, Afghanistan’s own army, less well trained and equipped, is being hammered. It has struggled to find enough recruits to replace those who die or desert. And now the Taliban and other insurgents are preparing for a spring offensive.
Fortunately, this grim picture is not the whole story. The bright spot is the efforts made by Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president since September, to improve his country’s tattered dealings with Pakistan. Closer relations hold out the tantalising possibility of making peace with the Taliban.
From meddling to making
Peace in Afghanistan is inconceivable without help from Pakistan. Machinations by the Pakistani army’s spy agency in the 1990s helped bring the Taliban to power. Yet whereas his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, went out of his way to taunt Pakistan, not least by flaunting his friendship with India, Mr Ghani is staking his political career on finding ways to work with it. On a visit to Pakistan in November Mr Ghani broke with protocol by calling on the all-powerful army chief, General Raheel Sharif, as well as on the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Mr Ghani understands that General Sharif needs help to deal with terrorists, a threat that Pakistani commanders and politicians for too long refused to acknowledge, but which was brought home by a murderous attack on a school in Peshawar in December that killed 132 children. So the Afghan president has sent forces to fight anti-Pakistan militants in their refuges in eastern Afghanistan, an unthinkable course under Mr Karzai. The army claims that it is now reciprocating by making it hard for Afghan militants to train in Pakistan. General Sharif is helping Afghan forces secure the long border. And he appears to be urging Taliban leaders to sit down with Mr Ghani and discuss peace.
There are good reasons for them to do so. Although the Taliban can cause mayhem inside Afghanistan, they struggle to hold territory. Last year’s election saw a clear vote against them and their violence. Plenty within the group have long been keen on a deal; talks were mooted in Qatar in 2013. Some Taliban might settle for more autonomy in the Pushtun heartland in southern Afghanistan, which is their main base of support. Many Afghans resent an overcentralised state.
The goal, in the long run, should be a new constitutional settlement. If he hopes to fix a fractious, multi-ethnic country and lay the foundations for peace and prosperity, Mr Ghani must come round to the idea that power should be devolved. All sorts of other issues will arise, including education for girls, which the Taliban abhor. But that is not for now. The urgent task is to get the two sides round a table. Pakistan is critical in achieving that-and China and America, acting in concert, could help press it into action. Moreover, outside powers, including Iran and India, must also make clear to both sides that they will stand behind a deal and offer plenty of economic assistance if one is done. Mr Ghani’s chance may prove fleeting. He deserves all the help he can get.