With the notable exceptions of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, world powers–and certainly all of Afghanistan’s immediate and regional neighbours–appear to agree that democracy, fragile as it now is, offers the best hope for Afghans and the best prospect for peace. Indeed, it’s this very fact that makes the notion of a return to Taliban and Islamist rule–and the risk of future sanctuary being provided to al-Qaeda–a frankly repugnant idea.
Pakistan sees things differently. It aspires to ‘strategic depth’ over India through the installation of a Taliban government. Meanwhile, although Saudi Arabia abhors al-Qaeda as it opposes the Saudi ruling dynasty, it nevertheless views the Taliban as impressive and zealous propagators of Sunni Wahhabism, and so is sympathetic to its return to power in Afghanistan (which would, in turn, serve as a counterbalance to Shia Iran).
Such calculations shine a stark and unsympathetic light on the dreamy plan broached at the London Conference to encourage the ‘good Taliban’ to join Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, secure Afghanistan with its own military and police and go after the ‘bad’ Taliban until it abandons al-Qaeda, which would force the terrorist group to flee safe havens in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Quetta in Balochistan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The fundamental problem with this is, of course, that there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ Taliban. The organization is highly ideological, motivated and united, while the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership are virtually inseparable in terms of their goal of creating an Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan. Both hope to fan their ideology outward to Central Asia’s nominally-Muslim republics, as well as to Russia’s restive Islamic provinces, China’s Uighur region, India’s Jammu and Kashmir, Iran and Pakistan. Indeed, it’s ironic that although Pakistan sees benefit in a Taliban regime in Afghanistan as a strategic countermeasure against India, its own nuclear weapons would be the prize target of terrorist forces operating from an Afghanistan caliphate.
But there’s still hope of salvaging the situation in Afghanistan, and it comes from what many might view as a surprising source. India, China and Russia found themselves sidelined in London, while Iran kept away primarily because the meeting appeared to be assisting the Saudis. Yet these four are in many ways the like-minded powers who, if they can settle their bilateral differences, could hold the key to significant progress toward a peaceful Afghanistan.
Of course, whether they can settle such differences is a big ‘if.’ Russia tried as recently as November to bring India and China closer on Afghanistan, but bilateral differences between the two appeared insurmountable, with tensions exacerbated by Beijing’s perception of New Delhi as a staunch US ally (not the case) following the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and growing military-to-military ties.