A few days ago, the political chief of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, visited China. The visit comes ahead of another round of talks between the Taliban and the United States concerning the Afghan peace process. Given these developments, it is worth assessing their broader significance.
Broadly, the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan has not been able to change the Taliban’s posture toward the Afghan government or the group’s position concerning the United States’ stay in Afghanistan. After months of lobbying and numerous meetings, the United States has failed to engender any concessions from the group. The Taliban still maintains that the Afghan government is not a legitimate party to the peace process and continues to demand the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan as a precondition to any peace agreement.
On the other hand, the Afghan government and the United States have shown willingness to offer some concessions to the group but remain reluctant from putting out a clear plan for the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan. Clearly, the question of the United States’ withdrawal has become a major reason for the current deadlock vis-à-vis the peace process.
The exiting impasse is not likely to see any changes in the coming weeks or months due to two major reasons and several subtler ones. Firstly, evidently, in Afghanistan, two major blocs have emerged when it comes to the country’s political leadership’s relationship with the international community. The Afghan government lead by Ashraf Ghani is heavily dependent on the United States for its immediate and long-term political survival in the country. Arguably, the current government in Afghanistan is aware that as soon as the U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the former’s influence or chances of survival in the country are going to take a substantial hit.
On a number of occasions, the United States has tried to deal with the Taliban directly due to the latter’s insistence on excluding the Afghan government from the talks. However, this has not worked for the United States either, as the Afghan government has put Washington under pressure for excluding it from the peace process. Recently, a senior Afghan official accused the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, of “delegitimizing” the Kabul government by excluding it from peace negotiations with the Taliban and acting like a “viceroy.” In this regard, while the Afghan government and the United States are working closely when it comes to the peace process, the latter may have to consider bringing some other political leaders into the mix if Washington is interested in making an agreement with the Taliban successful.
Secondly, the Afghan Taliban and a number of other political groups, for their part, are involved in a massive diplomatic buildup when it comes to improving ties with a number of regional states particularly China and Russia, Pakistan and Iran. A few weeks ago, the Taliban’s leadership participated in a conference in Russia where the group and the host country demanded the U.S. immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Moreover, the recent visit to China comes when the United States is involved in another round of talks with the group. In China, the Taliban’s political spokesperson said that “It is clear that when the Americans announce their decision on the timeline of the withdrawal of their forces [from Afghanistan], it will open the way for intra-Afghan talks so that we can decide on the future government and intra-Afghan talks.” The Taliban’s visit to China days before talks with the United States shows that Beijing’s clout has not only grown significantly in Afghanistan’s politics but also in terms of the country’s ties with the Taliban.
Additionally, it’s also becoming clear which side the opposition political parties are going to support. In Afghanistan, opposition political parties and leaders are aware that the United States’ stay in Afghanistan is likely to come to an end in the next few years. Thus, collaborating with regional power centers is going to boost their chances of coming to power in Afghanistan.
Understandably, Afghanistan’s domestic politics has again become a competing ground for various national and international powerbrokers. While Washington is gearing up to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, regional states such as China, Russia, and Pakistan are preparing to work with local political groups, including the Taliban, to ensure that the looming transition remains peaceful.