ISLAMABAD— After more than 12 years of war, Afghanistan faces a pivotal year as foreign troops prepare to leave. Both supporters and critics of the U.S. presence worry the conflict could worsen in the years ahead, similar to the civil war that engulfed the country following the 1989 departure of Soviet forces. In Islamabad this week, a group of Afghan and Pakistani elders and militant leaders discussed how to avoid that fate.
The gathering in the heart of the Pakistani capital brought together a group largely opposed to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. They included Taliban-allied militant groups, political representatives as well as Pakistani religious parties.
Many like the spokesman for the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, Shahzada Shahid, recognize some of the gains Afghanistan has made, and do not want to lose them.
He said, “the fact is that Afghanistan is not Afghanistan of 12 years ago. Let me tell you that in a very small border town of Kunar [province] we have 500 schools. Similarly, we have almost complete network of paved roads, a state structure in place, we have our own currency, trade.”
He said the group does not want to discard those resources after foreign troops leave.
Most of those gathered oppose keeping any foreign troops in Afghanistan after 2014. But they also are of the opinion that civil war is preventable in the post-withdrawal period.
Many here like former Afghan Prime Minister, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, believe a key to post-war peace is the complete departure of foreign troops.
“The foreign forces must withdraw -- no option of being in Afghanistan because we strongly believe as far as the ISAF and American forces are in Afghanistan there will no peace at all. Afghans who are real, sincere followers of jihad they are fighting the invaders those who have invaded our country. Americans, they are the occupiers. This is wrong that they have come to promote democracy and justice and so on. These are all wrong slogans,” said Ahmadzai.
Many observers worry that democratic values and support for women’s rights could erode in the coming years. As the country tries to discuss peace with insurgent groups, negotiators are working with people like Ghariat Baheer, spokesman for the Taliban-ally Hizb-e-Islami, who see echoes of the Soviet defeat in the planned U.S. departure.
“We support the courageous Afghan president and we pray that he will stick to this principle stand and will avoid signing this BSA accord with the U.S. I am advising my Afghan countrymen as well not to beg for the stay of the Americans in Afghanistan. The Americans have not come to Afghanistan at the invitation of Afghans and they are not leaving Afghanistan at the request of Afghans but they are leaving Afghanistan because of the tough resistance of Afghan mujahideen,” stated Baheer.
While such sentiments are widely shared by the Taliban and their allies, there is also broad recognition that Pakistan, where many Taliban top leaders allegedly live, plays a key role in determining Kabul’s future.
Shahid of the High Peace Council said in fact the fate of both countries rests on finding a resolution to the Afghan conflict.
“Prime Minister [Nawaz] Sharif has promised his people that he will solve the power and economic problems and will bring peace to Pakistan,” he said. “He can achieve these three objectives only when there is peace in Afghanistan. If there is no peace in Afghanistan, perhaps Mr. Sharif may not be able to live up to the expectations of his people.”
Pakistani veteran politician Afrasiyab Khattak has long criticized Islamabad’s policy towards Kabul, particularly its military’s ties to warring Afghan factions like the Taliban.
He said that Pakistan, Afghanistan as well as the United States need to coordinate their efforts or Afghanistan could repeat its devastating civil war of the 1990s.
“Last time when Afghanistan got chaotic it became the hub of international terrorism. This time around there is a real threat of Afghanistan becoming an origin of ethnic earthquakes and these earthquakes can spread in the region like cancer and Pakistan will be affected by it very, very fundamentality. So, I think it is in our best interest to help in stabilizing Afghanistan and befriending Afghanistan not a party, not a group, not a particular school of thought,” Khattak said.
Such a broad minded attitude toward Afghanistan’s future would mark a significant break for governments, political parties and insurgent groups who have long focused on advancing more narrow agendas. But because many now recognize that Pakistan’s fate is intertwined with its neighbor’s, there is hope that shared interests in peace will bridge longstanding divisions.