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MALEEHA LODHI
PERSPECTIVE

Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani envoy to the US and UK.

A moment of hope for Afghanistan

The next three months will indicate how the Ghani-Abdullah coalition addresses stability.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

The advent of a new government in Kabul marks a hopeful moment for Afghanistan after months of political turmoil and uncertainty. A government of "national unity" ushers in an unprecedented experiment in power sharing between opposing political groups and disparate allies, with their obvious ethnic overtones. This nonetheless offers an opportunity to set the country on an orderly path to meet the challenge of the transitions that lie ahead — security, economic, political, and regional.

The first and most immediate challenge for the Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah coalition is sustaining the American-brokered "unity" deal that enabled the political transition to proceed after a bitterly disputed election. But what many would regard as a shot gun marriage, forged under American pressure, also reflected the acknowledgement by both leaders of the imperative to work together — and the disastrous consequences for the country if their accord unravelled. Both know that international aid and assistance will only flow if the two stick together. They are also acutely aware that if their coalition does not endure this would expose Afghan security forces to the risk of fracture. As always, the devil is in the detail of working such a complex arrangement.

The second important challenge is posed by the activities of the armed opposition, the Taliban, who have exploited the recent uncertainty by stepping up attacks, especially in the South and East.

Although one part of the political transition has taken place, a successful transition has always meant more than a transfer of power. Its other crucial aspect involves launching a peace process that the Taliban can be persuaded to join and that eventually yields a political settlement.

In his inaugural speech, President Ghani signalled that "reconciliation" would be a priority on his agenda, but the question is what kind of on-ramp is offered to the Taliban into a political process they deem to be in their interest to join. For now, Taliban spokesmen have rejected Ghani's offer for talks. But this is far from being the last word, especially as Taliban fighters may be tiring of an endless war.

Finding a political end to the fighting is obviously essential for Afghanistan's long-term stability. This is all the more necessary because doubts linger about the security transition once Nato's combat mission ends in the coming months.

Although Afghan security forces performed well to secure two rounds of the Presidential election, there are questions marks about the Afghan National Army's ability to stand its ground when Nato's drawdown is completed.

Afghan security forces have been suffering much higher casualties. This summer alone, its casualties exceeded those suffered by Nato forces in 13 years of war. Issues of training deficits, morale and ethnic balance persist.

The new government quickly signed the much-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington to provide for a residual US/Nato military presence. How far this much smaller force of around 12,000 troops is able to deal with an intensifying insurgency remains an open question. After all, a much larger force, with air capabilities, was unable to achieve the military goal of defeating the insurgency.

The new government's ability to manage the economic transition, as aid levels begin to fall, will also have a crucial bearing on security.

This involves not just the immediate payment of salaries to government employees and security forces, but dealing with the recessionary economic impact of the drawdown of Western forces.

The next three months will be critical in indicating how the Ghani-Abdullah coalition is able to address these imposing challenges and whether it can build stability on the tripod of security, reconciliation and the economy.

Pakistan sees the new Afghan government and the exit of the unpredictable Hamid Karzai as an opportunity to coordinate more closely with its neighbour and to resolve differences that emerged in the recent past.

Islamabad has already signalled it is ready to extend all possible help — political, security and economic — to the new dispensation in Kabul.

It would also be ready to play a supportive role in political reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban, if asked to do so.

Pakistan's central post-2014 priority will be to secure its border. Its military campaign in North Waziristan, aimed at eliminating the last hub for assorted militants in FATA, has already seen the dismantlement of the infrastructure of militancy there. The operation has marked a decisive effort to secure the border, ahead of the Nato troop drawdown. Other than address a critical internal security challenge, this will help to stabilise the border as well as enhance regional security.

 
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