Encouraging reports have been emerging from both the parties to the Afghan parleys – the US and Taliban – for a prospective peace deal on Afghanistan. The latest round of week-long talks held between US Special Envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and representatives of Taliban in Doha have reportedly made good progress to iron out differences between the two sides on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. They have agreed to form a technical committee to phase out the drawdown of US-led NATO forces from Afghan territory. This has created a hope for return of peace and normalcy in war-ravaged country.
The Afghan conundrum is no more a bilateral issue between the US and Taliban. It has rather become a complex regional issue involving many stakeholders. Pakistan, India, Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar are some of the regional countries which have developed strategic interest in Afghanistan. They would make all endeavours to safeguard their strategic interests in the post US pullout scenario. On top of all these regional states, the main stakeholder in the Afghan talks is Ashraf Ghani regime which has so far been kept out of the loop by Taliban.
What Taliban want is to keep Ashraf Ghani regime out of the proceedings till after obtaining withdrawal of the foreign troops. This is going to be the main stumbling block. Given the sinking morale of the Afghan security apparatus, Ashraf Ghani regime would feel more vulnerable to war pressure of Taliban as it would be in a weak position to hold talks with the strident Taliban. The security conditions prevalent in Afghanistan would make it imperative for Kabul regime to have some presence of the foreign troops in his country with a view to avoiding the repeat of the fall of Dr. Najibullah’s administration in post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even, the US would not like to leave Kabul to fall to the Taliban like Saigon’s takeover by the Vietcong.
Pakistan also does not want an abrupt withdrawal of US-led NATO forces and it wants their orderly withdrawal to avoid further bloodshed. Pakistan encountered formidable security problems in the post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan as the country slipped into a long fratricidal civil war in which more people were killed than in the skirmishes with the Soviet forces within the country. Therefore, the regional countries will have to be involved in the peace process to evolve a regional approach to the resolution of the problem.
The current political structure in Afghanistan could claim legitimacy having been created by the Bonn Process under UN mandate resulting in the setting up of an interim administration mandated to draw and adopt Constitution of country through a Loya Jirga and hold general elections. The country has since been holding legislative and presidential elections. The Ashraf Ghani regime is the continuity of this political process and could genuinely claim legitimacy and has all rights and privileges of a legitimate stakeholder in the peace process.
The Ashraf Ghani regime may have multiple concerns at this stage ranging from its status in the post-peace deal political arrangement to the power sharing formula and restructuring of Afghan security forces accommodating the Taliban, ridding the country of the scourge of militant groups like ISIS, Islamic State of Khorasan and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and rebalancing Afghanistan’s relations with neighbouring as well as regional countries and the US. This is all easier said than done. These are serious issues with far reaching consequences for the peace process and the future of the country itself.
Pakistan has suffered on account of the Afghan civil war more than any other regional country. It has lost thousands of precious lives and billions in economic terms. No regional country can match the sacrifices rendered by Pakistan in counterterrorist war. Pakistan wants a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan in its neighborhood which should not allow its territory to be used by adversarial forces to destabilise parts of it. Knowing the terrain and war history of Afghanistan, Pakistan, therefore, has been steadfastly holding this principled stance that there could be no other solution to the Afghan problem than holding talks with Taliban. After much hawing and humming, the US came round to accept Pakistan’s view.
Pakistan considers the restoration of peace and normalcy in Afghanistan a shared responsibility with regional countries and international community.
Pakistan may have strong reservations over the increasing ingress of India in Afghanistan keeping in view the historic collusion of both countries to squeeze it from across its western frontiers. India has been spending billions of dollars to expand and strengthen its presence in Afghanistan building roads to connect that country with Iranian seaports with a view to decreasing Afghan dependence on Pakistan for foreign trade and also accessing Central Asian Republics directly.
It is also helping Afghans build water dams on Kabul River to impede water flow into Pakistan. River Kabul is one of the tributaries of River Indus. KP is the lower riparian to exercise bigger right over the waters of Kabul River. Indian intervention in Balochistan through Afghan territory is an open secret now. Pakistan would like to safeguard its economic and strategic interests in any future political dispensation in Afghanistan.
Russia has been making efforts to evolve a regional plan for resolution of Afghanistan problem. Moscow hosted two big meetings which came to be known as Moscow format. This brought enormous pressure on the US to give serious consideration to the proposal of talks with the Taliban. Russia has re-asserted its influence in the Central Asian region up to the Oxus River signing security pacts with Republics and engaging them in South-North International Transport Corridor along with Iran and Caspian Rim states and some East European countries.
Russia is also expanding strategic and economic relations with Pakistan to take advantage of the Arabian Sea waters through Gwadar port for itself and its Central Asian allies. Russia is also willing to access Gwadar for supply of gas and oil to Pakistan and India in the economic spur in the region. This will pave the way for Russian participation in Iranian gas line project to Pakistan and India. For the smooth implementation of all these economic plans, Russia should not only have close relations with Taliban who, in Russian calculations, would be dominant partners in any future political dispensation in Kabul. Russia has concerns about its growing strategic differences with European Union on the question of Crimea and the EU and US economic sanctions it faces since it occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Thus, it makes it natural for Moscow to harbour strategic interests in Afghanistan given the Taliban’s relations with the Islamist organisations in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Taliban have many hardcore Uzbek Islamists in their ranks which belong to the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan headquartered in the Andijan of the Fergana Valley. Russia is also concerned about the spread of radical Islam in its Muslim territories. The prospective economic connectivity plan to be emerging from the aftermath of peace and normalcy in Afghanistan also weighs heavily on the calculations of the regional countries, more so with the Kremlin. Russia would be loathed to give a free hand to the US to dupe Taliban into a peace deal heavily loaded in favour of the Ashraf Ghani regime, which the Kremlin considers as US client government propped up by foreign forces. Therefore, Russia has been engaging its erstwhile enemies (warlords) to build a front within the country against Ashraf Ghani regime.
The Kremlin has reportedly enlisted the support of the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and uncrowned king of Herat Muhammad Ismail Khan to strengthen its position in the talks. Warlord Muhammad Ismail Khan has been the trusted ally of Iran. This could mean that Moscow has already taken Iran into confidence. The US officials view the Russian move as a willful act to muddle their peace talks with the Taliban.
China has been showing interest in the return of peace and security in Afghanistan for two main reasons. The success of China’s BRI, particularly of CPEC depends on normalcy of security conditions in South Asia. The war in Afghanistan constituted a formidable hindrance in the smooth implementation of BRI. The Taliban have been maintaining relations with Chinese Muslims affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from Xinjiang province. The Wakhan corridor serves as the convenient passage for the Chinese Uyghur Muslims to enhance their communications with the Taliban. China desires to have close relations with Taliban in order to reduce their interaction with its troubled Muslim region.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not want to lose their influence with Taliban. Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans to switch from its oil-dependent economy to a broader economic base including industrial development, tourism and investment abroad. It has recently shown interest in investing $12billion in an oil refinery in Gwadar to target the oil-hungry China. Through this investment, Saudi Arabia could increase its economic and strategic interaction with the Central Asian Republics and Moscow. The Saudi King paid a first ever visit to Moscow soon after taking over as the new monarch of the country. The UAE has shown similar interests in making investments in CPEC related projects.
In view of the complex nature of the Afghanistan conundrum, the US would be better advised to coordinate its peace efforts with the major powers in the region rather having a solo flight. Only a peace deal that evolves with a broad-based support of the regional countries could be durable. TW
Alam Brohi is former Ambassador of Pakistan and was associated with Foreign Service of Pakistan