Last week, an Afghan Taliban delegation led by a senior leader arrived in Islamabad. The delegation in its meeting with Pakistan’s foreign minister agreed to resume stalled peace talks with the United States.
The development is significant, if not unprecedented, for many reasons.
The Taliban’s visit to Pakistan occurred at a time when Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan, was also in Islamabad. Moreover, it has already been reported that Khalilzad held a meeting with the Taliban representatives in Islamabad. This essentially means that Washington has not only decided to restart the stalled peace process, but has effectively endorsed Pakistan’s complete involvement in this regard.
The visit to some extent also answers questions related to Pakistan’s leverage over the group. The delegation of the Taliban was led by Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban leader who was detained in Pakistan for years and was only freed last year in an effort to launch peace talks. While in the past Pakistan has denied having plausible influence over the group, Khalilzad and the Taliban’s decision to visit Pakistan to hold the first meeting after the collapse of the talks underscores the country’s significant clout over the group and its role in the peace process.
Arguably, an agreement with the United States remains not only a priority for the Taliban, but also one for Islamabad and Washington. For Islamabad, a potential agreement not only helps Pakistan in keeping Washington interested in the issue of Kashmir and diminishing pressure elsewhere, but it also keeps Pakistan’s influence central in Afghanistan in a situation where the Taliban return to power. For Trump, an agreement between the United States and the Taliban can offer necessary support domestically as the country prepares for the 2020 presidential election. The Taliban, for their part, want the conversation over their role in Afghanistan’s political future to continue. While the group’s legitimacy has been challenged by Afghanistan’s political groups, the organization continues to benefit by engaging with the world over the exclusive issue of Afghanistan’s nonviolent future.
However, it’s unlikely that Pakistan will commit to anything beyond pushing for an agreement between Washington and the Taliban which naturally leaves out several other stakeholders, most importantly Afghanistan’s government. If anything, the Taliban and Khalilzad’s visit to Pakistan confirms that neither the United States nor the Taliban considers the recent Afghan election a development that can change the dynamics of the ongoing peace talks in any way. It’s important to note that the current government in Afghanistan is not part of the peace process and has questioned Pakistan’s role as a mediator in the entire debate.
As the Taliban were meeting Pakistan’s foreign minister in Islamabad, the Afghan government in a statement said that “Taliban’s visit to Pakistan will not help in restoring the Afghan peace process and that Islamabad should deny the use of its soil to Taliban and other terrorist groups.” Basically, the Afghan government in its statement equated the Afghan Taliban’s visit to Islamabad with a terrorist group using Pakistan’s soil – a policy line that even the United States doesn’t adhere to anymore. Moreover, the statement indicates that the government in Afghanistan is not pleased with the visit as it further undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government and other opponents of the potential peace deal.
A few weeks ago, the Afghan government openly celebrated the collapse of the peace talks. The development gave the government in Afghanistan a temporary but much-needed boost as it endorsed the former’s position that any peace deal without the inclusion of the government cannot become successful. While the Afghan government’s stance may be appropriate, it is hardly a stance which is driving Islamabad, Washington and the Taliban towards restarting the engagement.
The support of the United States and other states such as Iran, Russia, and China for the process not only legitimizes Pakistan’s role, but also constructs Taliban identity as a force that has a critical role to play in Afghanistan’s future. Effectively, this doesn’t bode well for Afghanistan’s ruling elite as it diminishes their stakes in Afghan politics.
In the existing situation, the Afghan government and its allies can neither chastise Pakistan for its support to the Taliban nor can they effectively lobby against Islamabad’s interests in Washington as the country has become a stakeholder in the process. If anything, the Afghan ruling elite’s attempt to derail the process is something that may draw Washington’s ire.
Simply put, the ongoing talks have more to do with U.S. forces’ withdrawal rather than a road map for permanent peace in Afghanistan. Arguably, as of now, this is exactly what’s driving Islamabad’s support for the process as the country is getting what it always wanted: a recognition of its Afghan policy and making Washington happy at a time when Islamabad needs its support the most.