Visiting Kabul can cause anxiety due to concern about the security situation in the Afghan capital.
However, most journalists tend to take risks if a trip promises to be professionally rewarding. Curiosity can take you anywhere anytime and this was the reason 11 Pakistani journalists from the print and electronic media, as well as an academic and a researcher recently embarked on a five-day visit to the fabled city of Kabul.
PIA uses the small ATR aircraft while the private Afghan airline, Kam Air, employs Boeing planes on the Islamabad-Kabul route. The short flight takes an hour only. In fact, Kabul is the nearest capital to Islamabad in terms of distance and flight duration, but this nearness has yet to translate into friendship. Pak-Afghan relations remain frozen in history and are uneasy and uncertain.
The scheduled meetings with President Dr Ashraf Ghani, his National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar and former President Hamid Karzai couldn’t take place as all three were on foreign visits. The post-Taliban period has created many opportunities for Afghans to travel abroad and it is not uncommon to meet people from different walks of life who have been to a number of countries. The Afghan diaspora, mostly based in the West, is quite large and wealthy and retains immense love for Afghanistan.
However, our inability to meet Ghani, Atmar and Karzai was to some extent compensated by the meetings with Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and the frank, off-the-record conversation that took place. Dr Abdullah’s position is equal to that of the prime minister and it should have been made part of the Constitution by now had his national unity government with President Ghani implemented the 2014 agreement that brought them together through the mediation of the then US Secretary of State John Kerry. The promised Loyal Jirga that was supposed to be convened for this and other purposes hasn’t been held despite the passage of three years. There is no indication it will be held anytime soon even though Karzai and many other Afghan politicians are demanding that it should be summoned to discuss and decide some of the grave security, political and economic issues facing the country.
In fact, it was during our stay in Kabul that a public meeting was held in Kandahar where opposition figures bitterly criticised the national unity government for its failure to fulfil promises and to take forward the peace process. However, the opposition leaders fell short of demanding the convening of the Loya Jirga. It was widely expected that this demand would be made and repeated in subsequent public events in other parts of Afghanistan to bring the government under pressure. One heard different interpretations as to why this demand wasn’t made at the Kandahar gathering. Some Afghan politicians and analysts said the US rescued the Afghan government by advising the opposition leaders not to agitate the issue and also ensuring that Atta Mohammad Noor, the long-serving governor of the northern Balkh province, and 1st Vice President General Abdul Rasheed Dostum’s son Batoor Dostum, are unable to fly from the Mazar-i-Sharif airport for Kandahar to attend the meeting. Obviously, the US won’t like the national unity government to become weak and vulnerable as all its efforts until now have been to make it stronger to serve as a dependable partner in achieving some of Washington’s core objectives in Afghanistan.
However, one could feel while in Kabul that all is not well with the national unity government. It seems the distance and distrust between President Ghani and CEO Abdullah is increasing and staying together would require regular US intervention in the future. Though they mended their relations after a major discord emerged between them last year when Dr Abdullah argued that Ghani was misfit to rule, the relationship seems far from cordial.
The scheduled elections for the Wolesi Jirga (National Assembly) on July 7 next year would be a major test for the unity of the government as both Ghani and Abdullah would want candidates in their camp to succeed so that they can dominate the parliament. If the polls are somehow held in time and that too after a delay of three years and the President and the CEO manage to keep their fractious government intact, there is no way they would stay together when the election for president is held in 2019. They could again contest election against each other as they did in 2014 and end up running a bitter and divisive campaign. Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun and Abdullah represents the Tajiks and is aligned with the Hazaras, who are Shias, and another election pitting them against each other would again give the contest an ethnic colour and contribute to fears of violence.
President Ghani recently sacked Balkh Governor Noor, who served in this position for 13 long years and resisted past efforts by both Ghani and Karzai to remove him. Noor had been a mujahideen commander and a Tajik warlord before he became the governor and allegedly amassed wealth and gain political influence. His sacking would put pressure on the unity government amid demands by Noor and certain other Jamiat-i-Islami leaders to quit the coalition with President Ghani.
Dr Abdullah and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani also belong to Jamiat-i-Islami, which has a 50 percent share in the unity government, and a decision by them to quit would further isolate the President and push him further to build a Pashtun coalition that may eventually even include Gulbaddin Hekmatyar.
Ghani has already alienated his 1st Vice-President Dostum, who is living in self-exile in Turkey and had unsuccessfully attempted twice to return home only to be denied entry as his plane wasn’t allowed to land in Afghanistan. This couldn’t have happened without orders coming from the US military authorities, who control the skies in Afghanistan and were angry with Dostum for allegedly ordering the torture and rape of his political opponent Ahmad Ishchi in November 2016. Dostum later left for Turkey fearing his trial, but such is the state of impunity in Afghanistan that the case against his bodyguards who reportedly tortured and raped the elderly Ishchi hasn’t made any real progress.
Such has been the fragile nature of the Afghan government whether under Karzai or Ghani that political compromises were required to be made to keep warlords happy and seek their help to fight the Taliban. Governance suffered even though Ghani has made some bold moves to fight corruption and keep certain warlords under check unlike Karzai who appeased all stakeholders. One cannot expect good governance and major reforms in a country suffering from a never-ending conflict and foreign interference.
Hard politics apart, there were instances of heart-warming happenings during the visit of Pakistani journalists to Kabul. Many common Afghans showed warmth while greeting us and government functionaries, including ministers, tried not to be very critical of Pakistan even though they politely reminded that they expected Islamabad to help move forward Kabul’s stalled peace process with the Taliban.
Minister for Refugees and Repatriation Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi praised his Pakistani counterpart Lt Gen (R)) Abdul Qadir Baloch and said he was satisfied with Pakistan’s cooperation in resolving the problems of Afghan refugees. Dr Abdullah was friendly and forthright while interacting with the Pakistani delegation and Salahuddin Rabbani listened intently to suggestions of improving relations with Pakistan at dinner at his home. Meetings with Afghan journalists and civil society activists were interesting and visits to some of the TV channels gave us a glimpse into the working of the flourishing Afghan media.
There was also some sight-seeing. It was nice to visit the Kabul Museum restored to its former glory and return to the magnificent Bagh-i-Babur, the garden built by Mughal emperor Zaheeruddin Babur in 1528 and where he is now buried.