The moment of reckoning is upon us. The US is retreating from Afghanistan with its mission half- accomplished, contrary to every claim it has ever made. The original aims of the US invasion of Afghanistan were twofold: to defeat and dismantle Al Qaeda and to impose a government of its choice in place of the Taliban government. While America has achieved a fair amount of success in degrading Al Qaeda, its efforts backed by military force to impose on Afghanistan a government reflecting its preferences and values have fallen short.

All the indications are that following the American military withdrawal by the end of 2014, the present government structure in Afghanistan will face a serious challenge from opposing forces led by the Taliban. Even the Afghan nationalists not part of the Taliban movement might be inclined to withhold support to a government which would carry the stigma of having been created through foreign occupation. After all, the Afghan history is replete with instances of the overthrow of rulers who had assumed power with foreign support, with Najibullah being the most recent example.

Karzai is clever enough to see the writing on the wall. He is busy making public statements to distance himself as much as possible from the policies of the American occupation forces. Not wishing to be seen as an American stooge, he has refused to sign the bilateral security agreement which would grant extra-territorial rights to the residual American troops that may be left in Afghanistan after December, 2014.

The foregoing also explains Karzai’s belated eagerness to reach an understanding with the Taliban failing which a ferocious civil war in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the non-Taliban forces are likely to ensue after the American military withdrawal. Such a civil war will further destabilize Afghanistan besides inflicting huge human and material losses on the Afghan people even if it does not result in the immediate overthrow of the US-installed government in Afghanistan.

 There is also the risk of the involvement of Afghanistan’s neighbours in the civil war thus destabilizing the whole region as was the case in the 1990’s. Insecurity and instability in Afghanistan would have devastating consequences for both Pakistan and Iran. Even the rest of the international community would not remain immune from the damaging consequences of the civil war in Afghanistan as history clearly indicates.

Therefore, national reconciliation and a political settlement in Afghanistan are a must for durable peace and stability in the country. A political settlement is not only in the interests of the people of Afghanistan but also an essential pre-requisite for regional peace and stability. It is heartening to note that the recent trilateral summit of the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey held in Ankara stressed the importance of a political settlement and urged the Afghan Taliban to join the peace process. The question however, is whether the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban are prepared to show the necessary flexibility for reaching such a settlement.

 From the Afghan government side, this would require its willingness to accept necessary changes in the Afghan constitution to accommodate the reasonable demands of the Afghan Taliban. At the same time, the Afghan Taliban would have to recognise that they alone are in no position to rule over Afghanistan exclusively and that they would have to share power with other forces and parties in Afghanistan. Because of the Taliban’s obscurantist ideology, their exclusive rule in Afghanistan is neither in the interests of that country nor in the interest of Pakistan. Hopefully, our political and military leadership has learnt that lesson from our experience of the 1990’s.

Further, while one must welcome the exchange of views among the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey at Ankara, it was a matter of disappointment that the critical role of Iran in encouraging the peace process in Afghanistan was ignored at the trilateral summit. From a historical perspective, it has always seemed that durable peace in Afghanistan remains elusive without taking Iran on board. The right thing would be to organise a dialogue among the leaders of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey to facilitate the Afghan peace process.

The scourge of terrorism from which Pakistan has been suffering over the past decade is largely an offshoot of the armed conflict and instability in Afghanistan. Because of ethnic and tribal links across the Durand line and the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, our tribesmen in FATA inevitably got involved in the fighting in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban after 9/11. The military operations launched by Pervez Musharraf and his successors at the behest of the Americans to stop our tribesmen from crossing the Afghan border redirected their fury against Pakistan leading to a spate of terrorist attacks all over the country. Though the two Taliban factions are entirely different from one another, perhaps part of the solution to TTP-related terrorism in Pakistan lies in national reconciliation and a political settlement in Afghanistan.

For durable peace in Afghanistan, for regional peace and stability, and for strengthening Pakistan-Afghanistan friendship, we also need to adjust our Afghanistan policy to suit the requirements of the post-2014 scenario. Under our changed policy, we should dissociate ourselves from the American war in Afghanistan while continuing to cooperate with Washington in fighting Al Qaeda. Our support to this war does not make any sense when the Americans themselves have decided to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan. Instead we should focus on encouraging and facilitating an intra-Afghan dialogue aimed at national reconciliation and a broad-based Afghan government in cooperation with Iran, Turkey and other regional countries. We must not launch military operations in FATA to oblige the Americans. Washington must be told in categorical terms that drone attacks carried out on Pakistan’s territory without the approval of Pakistan must halt. It is a difficult balance to find. The timing and modalities of these policy changes have to be decided carefully by the government taking into account all the relevant political, security and economic factors.

 Simultaneously, we should continue our policy of engaging the TTP, despite its obscurantism, in a dialogue to resolve mutual differences within the framework of our constitution. The TTP must be told in no uncertain terms that no group or party can be allowed to impose its views on others through violent means. Our government must keep in hand the option of using force against those extremist elements who resort to violence in defiance of the authority of the state.

The prospect of American military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 calls for a thorough review of and radical changes in the direction and substance of our internal and external policies as outlined above. It bears repetition that we should carefully and gradually distance ourselves from the American war in Afghanistan while maintaining diplomatic relations with the US. Our friendship with the US should not prevent us from pursuing an Afghan policy which is calculated to serve our best national interests.

 The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.