WITH the Afghan peace process — thanks to the complexity of the situation and the varying agendas of the parties involved — it is best to expect the unexpected. Only some time ago, it seemed as if efforts to bring the long war in Afghanistan to a close had hit a dead end, after US President Donald Trump abruptly announced via Twitter that talks with the Afghan Taliban were off. The decision came after an American soldier was killed amongst others in a Taliban attack in Kabul. Prior to this, it had emerged that Mr Trump had planned an unprecedented meeting at the Camp David retreat featuring members of the militia and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Moreover, after the Taliban targeted the recently held Afghan elections, it appeared as if chances of peace became even more remote. However, over the past few days, activities in Islamabad have shown that a fresh push for peace is being pursued. On Thursday, senior Taliban leader Mullah Baradar was in the capital and met the foreign minister; a statement released after the meeting mentioned that both sides called for the “earliest resumption” of the peace process. Aside from the high-powered Taliban team, Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s point man for Afghanistan, was also in the federal capital at the same time.
Clearly, efforts are afoot to restart the peace process, and Pakistan is playing a central role in this. Publicly, the American position is lukewarm, with Mr Trump reacting cautiously to a question regarding the resuscitation of peace talks. But behind closed doors, the situation may well be different. The difficulties are considerable, but if Pakistan is able to facilitate peace talks between the US and the Taliban, it will be a major diplomatic victory and will help improve the security situation in the entire region. Yet, this will by no means be easy, and expectations should not remain too high. The best way to proceed for Pakistan would be to employ experienced foreign policy hands and use the backchannel to facilitate contacts between Washington and the Taliban.
Meanwhile, much will depend on the results of the Afghan presidential election. Though the Taliban are dismissive of the government in Kabul and played a major role in disrupting the polls, with a new Afghan government in place a fresh peace overture may be possible. Yet much depends on a peaceful transfer of power in Kabul, while the Taliban must also put a halt to violent activities within Afghanistan to help the peace process move forward. Ultimately, as we have written previously in these columns, it will have to be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process, with regional states and foreign powers playing the role of facilitators. If the Afghans themselves — the Taliban as well as Kabul’s power players — are not ready for peace, there is little that outsiders can do.
INDUSTRY leaders’ recent round of meetings with the army chief and then the prime minister betrays a sense of mounting anxiety around the state of the economy. Such meetings have taken place before too, but rarely have they been made into high-profile affairs, complete with press releases and photographs being issued afterwards. Both meetings dragged on for hours, and though the details of what was discussed are sketchy, it is clear that the message given by the army chief to the industry leaders was one of patience. He found it necessary to underscore that the army and government were on the ‘same page’, and told the attendees that it would take time to stabilise the economy. This message captures the gist of what took place at these meetings. The industry leaders have been asked to not expect rapid changes, and expectations of any revival packages need to be tempered. Why the message could not have been delivered by the government alone is an indictment of the latter’s own inefficiencies.
For the moment, the government is constrained to walk the path of adjustment and resources are limited. But beyond resources, two themes that have repeatedly emerged in public pronouncements by these leaders is a runaway accountability drive that is being led by people who do not understand the nature of the business deals they keep interfering in, and the poor quality of implementation of the government’s policy direction. These elements are unrelated to the availability of government resources or the ongoing economic adjustment. They relate directly to the political choices being made by the government, as well as the poor quality of leadership coming from the top. This is turning into an unmistakable conclusion. Decisions are made but rarely implemented. Policies are debated, drafted, perhaps even signed, but the wheels of government below the line do not move in tandem with what the policy dictates. The only direction that economic policy has today is a relentless adjustment, gained through taxes and a pitiless strangulation of the economy through ‘demand compression’. Beyond this, there is nothing. And the danger now is that after the voice of the industry leaders has been heard but not heeded, we will be left with an economy that has no deficits but not much of a productive base either. Without thinking beyond adjustment, the government will undoubtedly run the risk of repeating yet one more cycle of eternal return to the IMF.