The endgame in Afghanistan has started in right earnest. If there was any doubt about it in anybody’s mind, the recent Nato Conference in Chicago should have put it to rest. According to the plan approved at Chicago, the combat role of the US-led Isaf in Afghanistan will come to an end by mid-2013. Thereafter, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be expected to take the lead for security throughout the country, while Isaf will shift from primarily focusing on combat to the provision of training, advice and assistance to the ANSF. The withdrawal of Isaf from Afghanistan will be completed by December 31, 2014. However, according to the Chicago Summit Declaration, the Nato will continue to extend “political and practical” support to train, advise and assist the ANSF, including the Afghan Special Operations Forces for a decade beyond 2014.

As the prestigious weekly, the Economist, has put it, it is a plan for an orderly retreat from Afghanistan for the war-weary Nato countries more than anything else. Just last month, 69 percent of the Americans in a poll called for the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The European partners of the Nato are even more eager than the American public for military withdrawal from Afghanistan. François Hollande, the new French President, intends to stick to his election campaign commitment to withdraw the French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. The financial and economic woes of the US and its European partners have added strength to the demands for phasing out the current Nato mission in Afghanistan. The people in these countries see little justification for the continued loss of blood and treasure for this mission after the death of Osama bin Laden and the incapacitation of al-Qaeda leadership. So, for the Nato leaders gathering at Chicago, the announcement of a plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan in an orderly fashion was a political necessity.

The Nato withdrawal plan from Afghanistan raises several vital issues from the point of view of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan, the regional security and Pakistan’s future well-being. The way the various political forces in Afghanistan, the regional countries particularly Pakistan and Iran, and the major international players deal with these issues will determine whether Afghanistan in the years to come will regain internal peace and become a source of regional stability or it will continue to suffer from internal fighting engendering regional instability.

The Nato forces, despite their anti-Taliban campaign for more than 10 years, have not been able to subdue them. It is inconceivable that now when they have virtually announced their plan of retreat from Afghanistan, the Taliban would surrender on the American terms. It also appears highly unlikely that the weak Afghan security forces would gain so much strength in the next few years through external support as to defeat the Taliban, especially if one takes into account the ethnic and tribal divisions in Afghanistan. The more likely scenario is that in the absence of initiatives for national reconciliation, the current Afghan regime would collapse within a few years after the Nato military withdrawal, more or less, in the same manner in which the Najibullah government fell in April 1992 after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even if the current Afghan regime is able to survive for some time, there would be civil war in Afghanistan following the Nato withdrawal until and unless a broad-based government takes over as an outcome of the process of national reconciliation in the country.

As the experience of 1990s suggests, neither the Northern Alliance nor the Taliban alone can restore durable peace in Afghanistan. National reconciliation and the establishment of a broad-based government reflective of Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic character are indispensable conditions for durable peace in the country. Now that the US has achieved its primary aim of degrading al-Qaeda, it should focus on promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan through the initiation of unconditional talks among the various Afghan parties, particularly the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The US initiatives for talks among the Afghan parties must have the endorsement and support of Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Pakistan and Iran, and major powers like China and Russia. This is the only way for the US to leave behind an Afghanistan, which is at peace within and with its neighbours. Washington should refrain from imposing a government of its choice, which reflects its cultural values, on the Afghan people.

A peaceful Afghanistan governed by a coalition of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and committed to uprooting al-Qaeda is obviously in the best interest of the US. A civil war in Afghanistan, the likely scenario in the absence of national reconciliation, will provide opportunities to al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits to re-entrench themselves in the country as happened in the 1990s. It will also destabilise the region through the involvement of the regional powers with one side or the other in Afghanistan. Both these consequences will be to the detriment of the US interests. In addition, a government in Afghanistan, which is dependent on the US largesse and military support for its survival, will be a continuous drain on the US resources, hardly a welcome prospect for Washington.

What are Pakistan’s options in the face of the unfolding scenario? Pakistan supported the exclusive rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan as against the Northern Alliance in the 1990s with disastrous consequences. The pro-Taliban policy isolated us internationally and regionally, tarnished Pakistan’s image as the supporter of extremism, brutalised Pakistan’s society by encouraging extremism and resort to violence, and was responsible for allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations to get a foothold in our country. The adverse consequences of that policy will continue to haunt us for quite some time. It is, therefore, in Pakistan’s own interest also that Afghanistan is ruled by a government which enjoys the broad support of the Afghan people and is moderate in its thinking and policies. Under the present circumstances, only a coalition of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, rather than an exclusively Taliban government, would fulfil these requirements.

The foregoing analysis calls for Pakistan-US cooperation for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan. While the US should open the door for unconditional talks among the various Afghan parties, we should use whatever influence we have on the Afghan Taliban to persuade them to join them for the sake of national reconciliation. We should disabuse the Taliban of the notion that they alone can restore durable peace in Afghanistan. Let us hope that the leaders of both Pakistan and the US would have the wisdom and the courage to rise above petty considerations and seize the strategic opportunity which awaits them. It would be a pity if they are distracted by jingoism and cheap slogans to lose sight of the essential for the sake of the peripheral. In such an eventuality, the resultant mess in Afghanistan would be to the detriment of both Washington and Islamabad. Therefore, our current differences with the US on such issues as drone attacks, our demand for an apology for the Salala attack, and the reopening of the ground supply routes through Pakistan for Isaf should be resolved within the context of an agreed strategic framework for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan and the defeat of al-Qaeda. In so doing, we should act with a sense of realism and measured flexibility.

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