Eyes are fixed on the February 25 scheduled meeting between the Qatar-based Taliban leadership and representatives of the U.S. government, led by seasoned diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who held the ambassadorial positions in Afghanistan and Iraq during the Bush administration.
Optimists have sound justifications to welcome these numerous rounds of talks and celebrate their prospects. Never before have the Taliban spokesmen talked as softly of peace as they are speaking now; the U.S. administration is expressing an unprecedented hopefulness; Pakistan is coming out with oft-repeated statements of sincere hope to see a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Even the Afghan government, which may be uneasy, continues to wait and see what will unfold in the days ahead.
Chalk it up to the marvels of Khalilzad’s diplomacy, U.S. President Donald Trump’s push-and-pull tactics, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s increased flexibility, or Pakistan’s urgent need for billions of dollars to stabilize its dwindling economy – whatever the cause, the Afghan reconciliation is well on track and moving ahead.
But there are still many obstacles before the proverbial cup touches the lips: possible rifts among the Taliban, disagreement from the Ghani administration if it continues to feel left out of the ongoing reconciliation process, and dissent among Afghan ethnic, political and regional power centers. But above all these, a major barrier to peace is the persistence of regional rivalries. These rivalries not only had provided lifeblood to the post-Russian conflict in Afghanistan but also scuttled, in one way or another, any peace effort launched from any forum since then.
The changing geostrategic and geopolitical situation demands more proactive roles from regional countries to secure their interests in Afghanistan in case the United States leaves the country after agreeing on a framework with the Taliban, whose major demand, the lynchpin of their 18-year insurgency, is the withdrawal of foreign troops.
The post-Soviet withdrawal era, in this regard, is a grim reminder for all the neighbors and regional powers to keep their eyes fixed on Afghan turf to secure their stakes whether Afghanistan plunges into another conflict or reverts to lasting peace and stability to help bridge regional connectivity. Depending on their stakes in both war and peace, neighbors and regional powers can be expected to be either facilitators or spoilers of the peace process.
The two-day gathering in Moscow in early February, which came hard on the heels of Khalilzad’s “highly productive” parleys with the Taliban representatives in Doha, points, for pessimists at least, to that storm in the building. In Russia, Afghan leaders, minus the Ghani administration, joined heads with the Taliban to discuss key issues such as the Afghan Constitution, women rights, and a ceasefire.
Already feeling left out from the two rounds of talks in Abu Dhabi and Doha, Ghani may become the elephant in the room if he continues to feel ignored. His frustration was visible when Tolo News asked about the Moscow talks. “The meeting in Russia was nothing more than a fantasy. No one can decide without the consent of the Afghan people,” an apparently upset Ghani told the Afghan television network.
Earlier, soon after the conclusion of talks in Doha, Khalilzad had assuaged Ghani’s concerns in his well-quoted tweet that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.”
The impetus for the February summit in Moscow, the second since November 2018 to discuss Afghan peace, was visible from the statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was quoted as saying that the United States was trying to “monopolize” the peace talks by keeping the regional countries “in the dark.”
Of late, besides expanding its outreach to the Taliban, Russia is warming up to erstwhile foe Pakistan, believed to be a key backer of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Moscow’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov landed in Islamabad on January 28 to discuss the Afghan peace efforts with Pakistani officials.
Since the February 5 to 6 Moscow summit is seen as a competing track for U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, analysts believe Russia may play a spoiler by pitting other Afghan leaders against the Ghani government in case the former superpower sees its interests at stake. The Moscow meeting was fueled by “Russian political sniping against the [United States],” Afghan affairs expert Thomas Ruttig told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this month.
Additionally, the Taliban handed over to Russia the two Moldovan pilots of the M-17 helicopter that had crashed in western Afghanistan in 2015. The pilots had been captives with the Taliban since then. Their release points to closer understanding between Russia and the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the longstanding India-Pakistan animosity could be the second biggest threat for Afghan peace and stability from a regional perspective. The two neighbors, who are declared nuclear powers, fought their last war with each other in the Himalayas from May to July 1999. However, an undeclared India-Pakistan war has been going on in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996.
The perception of India encirclement among Pakistan’s military establishment is forcing the country to harbor the Taliban leadership, to the annoyance of both the United States and Afghanistan. It is possible that Taliban inclusion in the Afghan government would help ease Pakistan’s worries, but there is no denying that most common Afghans — and their leaders — see faraway India as friendlier than next-door neighbor Pakistan.
The answer to the riddle lies deep in history and politics. While Afghans did not recognize the colonial-era Durand Line dividing the ethnic Pashtuns, Pakistan calls it the permanent and settled border with Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s support for the Greater Pashtunistan Movement of the 1970s and Pakistan’s backing of the Mujahideen against Najibullah Ahmadzai’s government had its roots in that argument.
Pakistan’s image as a Taliban backer is anathema to the majority of Afghans. In the post-Taliban scenario, while India earned a soft image by joining hands with the West to rebuild Afghanistan, Pakistan emerged as the villain despite its hosting of millions of Afghan refugees for nearly four decades. Pakistan will be reprimanded for the Taliban’s behavior even in post-reconciliation Afghanistan.
Even if Pakistan stops its support for the Taliban after the expected reconciliation, the country’s security establishment will not do away with its Kashmir-focused proxies anytime soon. That may provide a handy excuse for India to humble Pakistan on the Afghan front by using its friendly posture with Afghans. In a nutshell, one may conclude that the India-Pakistan muscle-flexing will continue in Afghanistan even if the Taliban peacefully join the government.
Afghanistan’s western neighbor, Iran, has no love lost for the Taliban, but when it comes to the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in its neighborhood, the regime will prefer the Taliban as the lesser evil. Since Iran’s ideological rival Saudi Arabia is coming forward with huge investments in Pakistan, centered on Pakistan’s Arabian seaport of Gwadar, that must be a cause of concern for the Iranian authorities.
Unless China becomes a guarantor to ensure modest behavior by Iran and Saudi Arabia, a rivalry is eminent, and it may spread its tentacles into Afghanistan to hamper the upcoming peace. This rivalry may also prove detrimental to China’s huge investment in Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Despite being close neighbors, relations between Pakistan and Iran have also been fraught with misunderstandings and suspicions, mostly based on ideological differences. The 2017 arrest of alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav in Pakistan, and his “confession” that he had run a business in Chabahar, Iran, had muddied the ties. Incoming investment, balance of payment support, and delayed payment on oil deliveries to the tune of $13 billion from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will likely widen the Pakistan-Iran rift.
Since Khalilzad is engaged with an intra-Afghan dialogue besides holding talks with the Taliban representatives to pave way for lasting peace in Afghanistan, one key area of focus must be a firm commitment by Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional players to keep their noses out of the country. Without that pledge, Afghanistan will run the risk of plunging into another conflict even if the Taliban agree to join the government.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.