Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has declared himself “cautiously optimistic” that he can get Pakistan’s help to negotiate a peaceful end to Afghanistan’s 13-year-old Taliban insurgency. Tonight he explained why.


The Afghan and Pakistani governments have agreed in talks since November that “for 13 years, we have been in an undeclared state of hostilities,” Ghani told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Pakistan’s acceptance of that notion—that the real conflict has been between the two states, rather than within Afghanistan—“is the breakthrough,” he said.

“The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban,” Ghani said in the forum, co-hosted by USIP and the Atlantic Council. “The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Ghani underscored that challenges of implementation will be immense once any peace deal is reached. He recalled years ago researching hundreds of peace agreements from recent conflicts worldwide, and said “50 percent of peace agreements globally break down within five years,” partly because of “a very low attention to implementation” of the accords reached.

Ghani opened his remarks by condemning last week’s beating death, by a mob in Kabul, of a 27-year-old Afghan woman named Farkhunda who was falsely accused of having burned pages from the Koran, the Islamic scripture.

“She was murdered in cold blood by a mob,” Ghani said. “We have arrested 32 people in relationship to this heinous crime. We have put over 10 police officers under investigation for standing silent and doing nothing.  This incident speaks to our collective trauma,” he said. Before the country’s current 36 years of war, “this unprecedented level of violence… had no place in our culture.”

Ghani answered questions from the Atlantic Council’s president, Frederick Kempe, and from the audience—hundreds of policy specialists and current and former officials. Speaking hours after his address to a Joint Session of Congress, he described a new “ecology of terrorism” represented by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and its efforts to find footholds in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

“We have to be willing to speak truth to terror,” Ghani said, underlining the need for the world Islamic community to lead in condemning and opposing ISIS’s brutality. “This is not your fight,” he said. “This is our fight and we must assume it and win it.”

To a U.S. diplomat’s query on his plans for pursuing “transitional justice”—prosecutions of those suspected of crimes amid Afghanistan’s years of war—Ghani voiced caution. He praised such efforts by South Africa and Rwanda, but said his great focus will be on ensuring justice in the present. “We cannot sacrifice the future for the sake of the past,” Ghani said.

Many wars have been ended without aggressive prosecutions of crimes that they included, in part because of the risk of renewing conflict, Ghani added. “Europe after World War II was not an example of transitional justice, it was an example of historic amnesia,” he said.

Ghani’s forum at USIP came near the end of three days in Washington in which President Barack Obama announced plans to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan rather than reduce that mission this year to 5,500. Those troops provide training, advice, intelligence and air support to Afghan forces battling the Taliban, but leave ground combat operations to the Afghan army.

Obama has let stand his plan to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2016, while some analysts say that deadline also should be made flexible. To a question about when U.S. troops might fully withdraw from Afghanistan, Ghani noted that more than 100,000—better than 90 percent of the force that once served there—has gone home. “The forces will come back when your leaders decide,” he said. “We respect that.”

Six months after Ghani took office in a power-sharing deal with Abdullah Abdullah, his rival in last year’s disputed election, their administration has renewed the government’s embrace of the U.S.-led international presence in the country. Ghani said he is working to draw the United States and China into a three-way conversation with his government alongside other regional discussions aimed at bringing greater stability South and West Asia.

With its diplomatic initiatives and an aggressive domestic agenda to combat corruption, the Ghani-Abdullah government represents “the United States' best chance to convert its wartime sacrifices into the more stable Afghanistan required for U.S. and international security,” USIP President Nancy Lindborg wrote yesterday in an op-ed article for USA Today.

On corruption and governance, Ghani said tonight, “It’s our responsibility to get our house in order”—one of several times that he stressed Afghanistan’s need to take charge of its own recovery and re-development. Ghani said he had retired 62 Afghan army generals since taking office, a step that his military advisors had told him was overdue to achieve a more efficient force. He said fuel contracting within Afghanistan’s military had raised corruption concerns, leading him to cancel contracts and reform the system.

At USIP last week, dozens of U.S., European and Afghan policy specialists and current and former officials echoed the call by Lindborg and others for greater U.S. support for Afghanistan. Speakers at that forum, including James Dobbins—for years a U.S. special envoy and ambassador to Afghanistan—urged the United States to commit itself to long-term, rather than year-by-year, programs of financial, security and economic development assistance for Afghanistan.

At tonight’s forum, Lindborg noted a visit she made to Kabul this month, in which Afghans she met insisted that the Ghani-Abdullah administration represents an opportunity that must not be missed.

“As one young woman who heads a civil society organization put it, ‘We have got to make this government work. We have no Plan B,’” Lindborg said. “She of course was speaking of the need to make the government work for the people of Afghanistan. But the rest of the world has a stake in that success as well.”

USIP has been working since 2002 on programs to help Afghans work through their civic organizations, universities and government to build peace in their nation after more than three decades of war.

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