OIC and Afghanistan By Ambassador Masood Khalid

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In less than two weeks, we will be seeing the dawn of a new year. Will this year be any different from previous years for hopeless Afghans or yet another year of despair and disquiet? This is the central question which will grasp the attention of the OIC Foreign Ministers when they meet in Islamabad on 19 December.

Afghanistan is an unfortunate land riven with decades long conflict, sectarian strife, palace intrigues, ideological battle lines and above all an arena for great powers rivalry and proxy wars. Historically, it has seen numerous political upheavals and military invasions being at the crossroads of South and Central Asia and located along the old Silk Road. It is a melting pot of various cultures and ethnicities and religions, although Islam is now a dominant faith.

It was a buffer between British India and Russian empire in the 19th Century. Labeled as a “graveyard of empires”, Afghan people are traditionally equipped to resist and confront outside powers who are perceived to disturb their eco-system. No power, howsoever mighty, has been able to subdue the brave Afghans.

In recent years, the US led war against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant outfits has thrown up a war economy which has defaced the socio-political fabric of the country. Crime syndicates and the drug barons manipulated this war economy to achieve their self-aggrandizing objectives.

The fiefdoms created by them challenged Ashraf Ghani’s Government, whose writ did not go beyond Kabul. Their invincibility was challenged by the Taliban who succeeded in breaking their stranglehold with the recent dramatic capture of entire Afghan territory.

The takeover by Taliban, though viewed as an unpleasant outcome by the West, presents nonetheless a reality which needs to be accepted and reconciled with particularly as it faces no popular opposition within Afghanistan. Daesh-led terrorism should not be confused with anti-Taliban resistance. The alternative to not accepting this reality would mean more mayhem and anarchy, transcending Afghanistan’s borders.

While it is true that the Taliban have yet to meet their end of the bargain in coming up to the expectations of the international community on such issues as an inclusive dispensation, protections of human rights, women empowerment etc., but isn’t it naïve to expect from a battle hardened, inexperienced group, more akin to gorilla warfare, to deliver on the finer norms of statecraft and that too in few months. This thinking is simply unrealistic.

Culturally and socially, Afghanistan is very different from other societies. Its tribal character is rooted in ultra conservative social values which are centuries old. The Afghan have their own systems of retribution and justice. They are fiercely proud and independent people and have the capacity to find homemade solutions to their problems through tribal ‘jirgas’ and similar other mechanisms.

The twenty-year conflict has amply demonstrated that any attempt to impose an outside model of governance will not succeed in Afghanistan. An insistence on the so-called ‘good behavior’ by the Taliban before the international community comes to their help, is thus a perilous proposition for Afghanistan as well as the wider region.

While accounts of the international media and the UN assessment draw attention to the gravity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, the apathy and the indifference in certain western capitals towards sub-human conditions of the Afghan people, is mind boggling and indeed worrisome.

The US decision to freeze the Afghan assets is a recipe for unmitigated disaster, as the Afghan economy till recently was wholly dependent on the American doles. With that source of funding blocked, Afghanistan is fast heading towards a humanitarian crisis.

The world needs to recognize that the collapse of Afghanistan would mean a resurgence of terrorism, war lords and drug lords and large-scale exodus of Afghans to neighbouring and far regions. It will also be futile to use the ‘good behavior’ conditionalities with the Taliban as a bargaining chip. That may not work. The world needs to ask, whether a replay of what happened over two decades in Afghanistan, is really a choice worth exercising.

According to UN estimates, 60% of the Afghan population is faced with “crisis levels of hunger” and 2.3 million children are at risk of malnutrition. In addition to the 2.9 million internally displaced persons, another 665,000 people have been dispersed within Afghanistan between January and September 2021.

The UN has issued urgent appeals for help and financial pledges have also been made. However, the aid is not reaching to common Afghans due to sanctions and restrictions on banking transactions. The onset of winter has aggravated the fears of a looming disaster, if these restrictions are not immediately lifted.

There was a sigh of relief after the Doha Accords and a hope that gradual normalcy will return to Afghanistan and international assistance will start flowing to rehabilitate the destroyed country.

However, these hopes have been dashed with the policy choices made by the Biden Administration. This approach is incomprehensible particularly as positive signals have emanated from the Taliban to reach out to the US and broader international community. The stance that the engagement with the Taliban will happen only when they display “good behavior” is fraught with grave risks.

On the other hand, this would alienate the Taliban and make them more rigid and on the other accelerate the state’s meltdown, which is in no one’s interest.

The forthcoming OIC Foreign Minister’s meeting is a timely initiative by Saudi Arabia in its capacity as the OIC Summit Chair. Pakistan, which has been actively engaged in reaching out to world leaders, Afghanistan’s neighbors, bilaterally as well as multilaterally, has welcomed the Saudi initiative and agreed to be the host.

Pakistan’s concerns over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan are fully understandable as Pakistan has suffered the most in terms of human and material loss due to prolonged turmoil in its neighborhood. Even today, Pakistan is hosting nearly 4 million Afghan refugees. Neither it can optimize its potential to be a geo-economic hub, if chaos prevails in Afghanistan.

Its landmark collaborative project of CPEC with China and its extension to Afghanistan and connectivity plans with Central Asia, will also be adversely affected. Afghanistan, and the Central Asian Republics – all landlocked countries keen on trading with the outside world through Pakistan – will suffer and will not be able to reap the economic dividends.

Pakistan, therefore, is coordinating its diplomatic efforts with these like-minded countries and other regional neighbors to ensure peace and economic stability of Afghanistan. Pakistan shares the international opinion for an inclusive political arrangement in Afghanistan, respect for basic human rights, women empowerment and non-use of the Afghan territory for terrorism.

At the same time, it believes that a gradual and an incremental approach based on engagement with the Taliban is a better way of bringing about the desired outcomes.

The OIC Foreign Ministers meeting has acquired great significance in this backdrop. Afghanistan is a founding member of OIC, and over the years, OIC has extended consistent support to the people of Afghanistan. OIC should add its powerful voice in sensitizing the international community to the dire situation faced by the Afghan people and the cost of its inaction.

Since the meeting will be attended by the representatives of P-5, IFIs, some regional and international organizations and the UN system, the platform should be used to bridge the differences between them and the Taliban. The Conference should also use its good offices with the Taliban to bring about moderation and flexibility in their conduct. A mechanism can be considered for evolving a consensus and to find a middle ground. The Taliban need to be apprised of the benefits of this consensus.

The OIC should announce an “Action Plan” inclusive of these measures plus a robust financial package aimed at rapid supply of food items and medicines to the Afghan government.

The OIC Foreign Ministers meeting is a ray of hope for the Afghan people, who expect the Islamabad meeting to ameliorate their sufferings. It is hoped that the Foreign Ministers will be able to heal their wounds and not disappoint them. It is also hoped that the US will review its position and be a strong partner with the international community in rebuilding Afghanistan. Let this be a window of hope for the brave Afghan people.

The writer is former Ambassador of Pakistan to China and Republic of Korea.

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