With the US continuing talks with the Taliban and failing to include the legitimate Afghan government, and other countries also battling to court the group, the reconciliation process is beginning to look like a game of economic geopolitics.
As Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Envoy to Afghanistan, landed for another round of talks on the Afghanistan reconciliation process a few days ago, Uzbekistan became the latest country to throw its hat in the ring to host the Taliban peace talks.
Khalilzad’s visit comes after the latest and most contentious round of tensions between Kabul and Washington DC, following the very public falling out between Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib and the American leadership due to his remarks to Fox TV last month.
As the most senior Afghan security official he had every right to lash out at his American counterparts for sidelining the Afghan government in the peace talks. For all of Khalilzad’s tall claims, the Americans are not taking the legitimate Afghan government into confidence, after all this is what the whole Afghan war was about, to build a sustainable internationally law-abiding government in Kabul.
Now as the Taliban gains strength regionally and the Americans sideline the senior most Afghan officials, the Taliban talks are increasingly looking like a circus with daily claims and counterclaims.
The Taliban Khalilzad talks – confusion over strategy
Last summer, the most senior American General in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, first mentioned the idea of talking to the Taliban, and then backtracked saying that his quotes were misunderstood and beating the Taliban on the battlefield still remained his main mission. Since retirement, he is adamant any talk of leaving Afghanistan should be tempered with the fact that the Americans and the international community made a commitment to the Afghan government and they should be included in any talks.
General Scott Miller who replaced Nicholson, said that the new mission was to go on the offensive against the Taliban. Khalilzad himself is dishonouring his career-long admission of supporting democracies in countries like Afghanistan.
The Afghans are rightly furious at Khalilzad given his notorious past, including involvement in Afghan commercial ventures which were far from transparent. It was the idea that he wants to talk to the Taliban without the consent of the Afghan government that led to Mohib calling Khalilzad a ‘viceroy-like figure’.
Mohib and the Afghans have a point. Khalizad has personal ambitions in Afghanistan, both political and commercial – he has wanted to run for president or another senior post in the Kabul set-up at various time in the past two decades.
Khalilzad also worked for the oil and logistics firm that spoke to the Taliban in the 1990s to discuss pipeline agreements. It is here where the real geopolitics of the Taliban peace talks lie – a regional commercial incentive to link Central Asia to South Asia. Of course security and terrorism figure high in the agenda, but an economic deal with the Taliban would undercut the need to have terrorist safe havens as a money making exercise, as before with Al Qaeda.
China also has shown economic interest and is talking to the Taliban as a viable economic partner coupled with security guarantees. The Americans have also in the last couple of years consistently accused the Russians of supporting the Taliban.
New geopolitics or a return of the old?
The regional outlook of the Taliban peace talks involving Russia, China and Uzbekistan would lead to the argument that it’s about economic geopolitics rather than ideological religious fault lines. However Ahmad Rashid, whose first best-selling book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism remains the definitive account of the group, argued the same thing over two decades ago i.e. that oil and central Asian geo-economics lay at the heart of the movement.
However one thing which has evolved and changed drastically about Rashid’s analysis is the Taliban views on Iran, Shia Islam and the Russians. Whilst previously the Iranians, Shia in Afghanistan and the Russians were evil personified and the Taliban were busy killing Iranian diplomats in the 1990s – now Tehran is not only supporting the Taliban but actively partnering up with the group as it sheds its previous stance against Shias in general. Late last year the Taliban denied involvement in the Shia attacks and condemned them.
On the Russian front, Moscow is the unlikely place where the Taliban came face to face with senior Afghans like Hanif Atmar and Hamid Karzai. It was ironic that the Taliban would meet their erstwhile rivals Atmar and Karzai in Moscow of all the places. The tussle between Qatar and the UAE has also been used by the Taliban to good effect with both vying to host the Taliban for vital talks.
The Taliban have travelled to Uzbekistan, China and Turkmenistan in a growing show of geopolitical prowess. However the Afghan government remains the legitimate representative of the Afghan people as recognised by the UN and as long as the Americans ignore their own early objectives i.e. to support Kabul, the peace talks will continue to look like a circus for the media.
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