Afghanistan can have a bright future, but it has to start with political reconciliation.
Abdullah Abdulrahman Alim
In early March five Pakistani soldiers were killed in Taliban attacks on checkpoints along the border. The attacks followed a veritable massacre the previous week in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where near-simultaneous Taliban suicide bombings were followed by drawn-out shooting match Afghan security forces. The gruesome episode left at least 16 people dead and over 100 wounded.
This is the routine carnage wreaking havoc across Afghanistan. But after 15 years of war, it is clear that we need a new strategy, one that enfranchises all groups in Afghanistan – with a view to build a truly viable and lasting democracy.
That was the theme of the meeting of the International Contact Group (ICG) for Afghanistan hosted by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the end of February – shortly before the renewed outbreak of violence.
The OIC is the intergovernmental body comprised of 57 Muslim majority member-countries. We formed the ICG in 2009, under the auspices of Germany, to coordinate international efforts to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.
At the last meeting, over 50 ICG member states and multilateral organisations came together to ratify a fundamental idea: that sustainable stability in Afghanistan can only be achieved through a political settlement between Afghans.
In September 2016, the national government of Afghanistan signed an unprecedented agreement with Hezb-e Islami, one of the country’s most prominent armed groups. Critics have pointed out that the agreement could allow the group’s notorious leader, Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, to return to political life in the country.
This is an understandable reservation, but the critics overlook the alternative. Two years ago, Hekmatyar had announced Hezb-e Islami’s support for the growing presence of DAESH militants in Afghanistan, with a view to combat the Taliban.
Afghanistan is already unstable. Such a prospect would have plunged the country even further into a heightened state of prolonged civil war between Hezbi-Islami, DAESH, the Taliban and the Afghan government.
But by signing the peace deal with Hezb-e Islami, the Afghan government managed to stave off this potentially catastrophic scenario.
It is just the beginning. At the previous ICG meeting in February we supported the efforts of the Afghan government to engage with all armed groups, including the Taliban, in a political process whose goal is the renunciation of violence and respect for the constitution. Only through such a political process can we begin rebuilding Afghanistan.
In that spirit of cooperation, the OIC will host an International Ulema Conference on Afghanistan later this year in an effort to unite Ieading Islamic clerics from the region behind a single, viable peace process for the country. And in November of this year, Turkmenistan will host the 7th Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) to explore opportunities for countries in the region to work together to revitalise the Afghan economy.
The RECCA agenda offers a meaningful vision of economic prosperity for Afghans. Among the issues on the table are agreements to create ground-breaking new institutions and mechanisms for trade: a new infrastructure to supply electricity to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan; the ‘Lapis Lazuli’ trade corridor from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan, the Caucasus, Turkey and to Europe; the Chahabar trade and transit route that will allow Indian goods to reach Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chahabar; a new rail connection with China; and the creation of a modern ‘Silk Road’ through Afghanistan. This vision sees Afghanistan emerging as a trade, transit, energy and communications crossroads between Central, South and Southwest Asia.
That is the bright future that Afghans could see come to fruition if we work together to achieve political reconciliation.
February also saw the 28th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. While the Taliban used the occasion to repeat its commitment to driving American forces out of the country, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani renewed the call for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
If the Taliban truly cares for the interests of Afghans, they would do well to take up this call. Because surely the most viable path to an independent and peaceful Afghanistan that is free of foreign forces, is not to keep fighting – but for Afghans to come together, resolve their differences, and build the vibrant nation that has been denied them for too long.
Author: Ambassador Abdullah Abdulrahman Alim previously served as Ambassador of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Indonesia and Oman before joining the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s second largest inter-governmental organisation, as Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs.