Growing regional interest for peace in Afghanistan

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Peace talks in Moscow

Bloodshed in Afghanistan is not letting-up as more than forty fatalities resulted after a grim attack on a Kabul government’s office highlighting the increasing spectre of violence in the country that has the potential to spill over in the region. It is now becoming clear that finding a peaceful solution to Afghan imbroglio is just not the responsibility of US-led Western alliance but requires a collective regional effort. The need was recognised much earlier but the dominance of proponents of military-led solution in Washington kept regional participation in peace efforts to the minimum compelling China and Russia to go for sorting things out on their own.

China became a party to reconciliation efforts by becoming an interlocutor on Pakistani side and Russia increased efforts to enter into negotiations with Taliban and was successful in calling them over to Moscow for parleys, an event dubbed as the first Taliban presence on Russian soil. Similarly Iran also employed its good offices for finding a solution to the longest war in the region and is known to be in contact with both sides. India is known to be interested in Afghan though its ultimate designs do not go far than encircling Pakistan through its western borders and these plans are deeply resented by Pakistan.

The US-led Western alliance also appears to be amenable to some sort of regional solution and has welcomed participation of regional countries. While doing so, it is conscious of the de jure status of the Kabul regime that is solely dependent upon western support and the alliance is trying its utmost to secure cogent role for it in any future arrangement. In this respect the sudden announcement of drawdown of US troops from the country may be a double-edged sword: ensuring Taliban of fulfilling their cardinal demand of vacating Afghanistan and also putting pressure on Kabul regime to get its act together.

Iranian connection
Taliban fighters

Pakistan is effectively lobbying on its own by sending its foreign minister to Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia to apprise leaders of these countries about the meeting between the United States and the Taliban in Abu Dhabi last week. This meeting was facilitated by Pakistan and may have resulted in breaking the longstanding logjam. Pakistan specifically assigned value to parleys with China that has expressed open support for its role in the matter. The Chinese government officially endorsed the efforts made by Pakistan and acknowledged that both governments have reached a “broad consensus” on the issue.

There already exists a trilateral framework for enhancing cooperation between Pakistan, China and Afghanistan for securing peace and reconciliation, security and connectivity and in other areas. It was heartening to notice that the forum met in Kabul signing a Memorandum of Understanding for intensifying their counterterrorism cooperation though the Afghan foreign minister added some bitterness to the proceedings by blaming Pakistan for the troubles in his country.

The position of Kabul regime has suffered a setback when Afghan presidential elections were postponed after the US announcement of troop drawdown. Afghan president has already complicated the situation by appointing two former secret-service chiefs, Asadullah Khalid and Amrullah Saleh, as his key security advisers that has raised eyebrows because they hold extremist views on Pakistan’s role. These appointments have fueled accusations that Ghani, sidelined from the talks by the Taliban’s refusal to deal with his government, was trying to neutralise potential opponents by bringing them onto his side ahead of the election.

China is studying the hasty American troop drawdown decision and has refrained to offer a comment. It has lately become very active in brokering peace in the region as stability in Afghanistan is critical to its Belt and Road policy of expanding trade links across Asia. Beijing has hosted Taliban leaders in an effort to bring the warring sides in Afghanistan to the negotiating table. It has been long worried about the effect of instability in Afghanistan on China’s violence-prone far western region of Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur people and where it faces a threat from militants.

Pakistani and Chinese concerns
No military solution

Afghanistan has agreed to train a mountain brigade in China to patrol Wakhan Cor¬ridor bordering China’s Xinjiang Province. America views China’s concern about growth of militancy as a positive element which could encourage Beijing to work with international community to suppress terrorism in South Asian region. Americans also believe that Afghanistan continues to seek Chinese pressure on Pakistan to assist reconciliation efforts and eliminate insurgent sanctuaries. China has also offered the extension of BRI facility to Afghanistan that may prove an attractive offer.

America has come round to accepting regional role in solution to Afghan problem as it recognises that these countries could play a key role in ending the conflict. America appreciates that China’s military, economic, and political engagements in Afghanistan are driven by domestic security concerns that terrorism will spread across the Afghan border into China and also by China’s increasing desire to protect its regional economic investments.

The Americans believe that the most experienced of the regional countries in Afghanistan affairs is Russia because it still insists on its relevance and preponderance in Central Asia and has been trying to devise means to ensure them through Shanghai Cooperation Council. Russia has long-term ties with Afghanistan and was engaged in training Afghan troops during the monarchical rule in the country. Going by its past practice, Moscow seeks arms sales, maintenance and training to Kabul, which would provide influence with the Afghan government. There is a long history of Russian support for Afghan power brokers as it has always endeavoured to create a security buffer in northern Afghanistan. In this respect Russia has reinforced the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan to counter a growing ISIS-K threat in northern Afghanistan.

Similarly, Iran seeks a stable Afghan government that is responsive to Iranian goals, the elimination of ISIS-K, the removal of the US/Nato presence, and the protection of Iranian concerns, such as water rights and border security. America recognises Iran’s influence in the region particularly Afghanistan as was evident by the sanctuary it provided to exiled Hizbe Islami leader Gulbuddin Hikmatyar after Taliban took over the country.

Moreover, Iran has also housed more than a million Afghan refugees who fled to Iran after Taliban takeover of Kabul. Iran has been pursuing a multi-track strategy of engaging and trying to grow ties with Afghan government, expanding trade and economic investments and providing calibrated support to the Taliban while trying not to alienate Kabul. It is often observed that Iranian involvement is most prominent in western, central, and northern Afghanistan where local Afghans share common history, culture, religion, and language with Iran.

The most crucial regional actor is Pakistan that holds a central position in the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan. On the ground President Trump’s decision to pull around half of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan has stunned and dismayed diplomats and officials and comes during a renewed push for talks with the Taliban to end the 17-year war. Pakistan has, however, welcomed American decision to slash US troop numbers calling it “a step towards peace” in war-torn Afghanistan. Pakistan is aware that there is no military solution to Afghan troubles and it can take the credit for convincing regional countries to come together for finding an acceptable solution.

M Ali Siddiqi is a writer who contributes to leading periodicals

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