From Russia and the US to the UAE, several powers and stakeholders in the Afghan conflict have started engaging with the insurgent group to secure a long lasting peace in the country.
In late December 2018, Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN’s special representative for Afghanistan, gave a briefing to the UN Security Council on the recent development in the war-torn country. Despite the overall grim nature of the disquisition, which involved increasing civilian casualties and a troubled parliamentary election, Yamamoto did note, with some optimism: “The possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict has never been more real in the past 17 years than it is now.”
Yamamoto was referring to the many attempts made over the last year, by various stakeholders in the Afghan conflict, to bring the Taliban insurgency to the negotiating table, some of which have resulted in more tangible success than others. Among the many ‘firsts’, was a three-day long ceasefire with the Taliban during the Islamic festival of Eid-ul-Fitr, initiated by the Afghan government. This was followed by the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, tasked with negotiating peace with the Taliban.
While Khalilzad has already conducted several promising meetings with Taliban leadership, there are other parties involved who have taken their own steps to facilitate a dialogue between the warring groups, the Afghan government and the Taliban. These efforts included a meeting in November in Moscow held by the Russian government, another conference hosted in UAE in December over a period of three days, and most recently talks in Iran, held on Monday. Notably, though, the Taliban has been reluctant to talk directly with the Afghan government, who they often refer to as a ‘puppet regime’, prompting an increased interest from regional stakeholders to invest in ‘brokering’ what is seen as a possible historical end to the longest war.
However, not everyone invested in peace in Afghanistan has noble reasons; that there is a vested interest for all parties involved has been evident to Afghan leaders as well as political analysts for a while now. “There is strong suspicion in the region that the United States desires permanent military bases in South Asia,” explained Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, who has keenly observed the development of the Afghan conflict for several decades. However, a lingering troop presence is unacceptable to Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China.
“That makes a potential US drawdown a reason for cautious optimism, as the neighbours may be less inclined to disrupt US peace talks -- and might actually lend a hand -- if they believe that Washington will eventually give up its strategic foothold on their doorstep,” Smith said.
But just because regional neighbours want a US exit does not mean they want an abrupt withdrawal. “All sides recognise that a precipitous pull-out could spark a new civil war that destabilises the region,” Smith added.
Interestingly though, all parties with an interest in Afghan peace have been enthusiastic to reach out to the Taliban, a deadly insurgency that has been credited with mass civilian casualties and terrorism against state actors, including those from United States. The recent developments are bound to change the course of the conflict, and build new alliances, and many Afghan leaders recognise that, including the former president Hamid Karzai who has on several occasions referred to the Taliban as brothers.
“Apart from a national consensus on peace with the Taliban, we need a regional consensus as well as one with influential foreign power,” said Idrees Stanikzai, an Afghan politician and a candidate for the parliament from Kabul. “If these regional and international powers have influence on the Taliban, it could help usher a more stable and long-lasting peace for Afghanistan,” he reasoned, adding that the countries involved will also have vested interests, especially those in the immediate neighbourhood. “The relationship they build with Taliban now, will give them an edge over others in the case of an eventual peace,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has been vocal about iits interest in wanting better relations with regional powers, as well as with the United States, if the the latter agrees to a withdrawal of troops. “The Taliban have declared their intention to maintain friendly relations with regional powers such as Russia and China, and in fact the insurgents have taken concrete steps to build trust with the security services of those countries,” Smith added. The Taliban has offered support and protection to various development projects in Afghanistan including the trans-national TAPI pipeline, which is being constructed through large swathes of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban insurgency.
However, Stanikzai also speculated that the increased participation of multiple groups, many of whom do not get along with each other, has very likely divided Taliban leadership internally. This rift could also potentially impact the possibility of eventual peace. “There are Taliban leaders who are closer to Russia or some who are closer to Iran. They will call up on them when they [the Taliban] are in Kabul,” he warned, drawing a parallel with the Mujahideen fighters in the 1990s who were supported by various nations as proxies.
Echoing Stanikzai’s sentiment, Smith said: “Regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan now face hard decisions about how to shape the post-American future. They could assist with peace talks to calm their neighbourhood, or they could double down on Afghan proxies that fuel civil war,” he explained. “Their policy stands at a crossroads.”