by Fatemeh Aman
Since the announcement by Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, in Moscow in February that the Taliban is willing to engage in direct negotiations with Kabul, there have been conflicting reports of the progress of the talks. These would be the first direct talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. In February, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, also announced his country’s offer to facilitate the talks.
Although public support in Afghanistan is increasing for negotiations with the Taliban, there are calls for transparency about the process and more clarity about the nature of the talks. There are also concerns that a rapid withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan would create a security gap similar to that of Iraq.
But the key to success is the regional component. Afghan peace talks with the Taliban can only succeed if neighboring countries all contribute to a solution. A major test will be the attitude of Pakistan and the ability of Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, to persuade Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban in a constructive manner.
The Challenge of Pakistan’s Involvement
So far, the talks do not face any apparent opposition from Afghanistan’s neighbors. Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum said in Mazar-e Sharif on March 21 that all the country’s neighbors, including Iran, support the talks. Other important players, including Russia and the European Union, also back negotiations.
The wild card remains Pakistan. Particularly because of its long-time rival India, Pakistan’s participation is a delicate issue. Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive officer of Afghanistan under a new unity government, recently praised India for helping Afghanistan and dismissed any cause for concern about “anything that is happening on the periphery.” Abdullah added that Pakistan’s active involvement in the talks with the Taliban would be tested. “We will be realistic when it comes to our dialogue or relationship with Pakistan,” he said.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has expressed concern about Pakistan’s deep involvement in the peace talks. Karzai himself was an eager participant in previous negotiations and made numerous overtures to the Taliban, including releasing a suspected commander of the Haqqani network and other Taliban prisoners. Karzai has referred to Taliban as his “brothers” and called the bilateral security agreement signed by his successor and the Obama administration “shameful” and “without dignity.” Karzai went so far as to say that he would rather sacrifice international aid than sign the agreement, noting, “If you ask me, I prefer to live in poverty than in uncertainty.”
Karzai’s policies toward Pakistan were confusing and conflicting. Conspiracy theories are not hard to come by in Afghanistan. Many Afghans see Pakistan’s hand in almost everything bad that happens in their country. Nonetheless, one would expect a head of state to have a more sophisticated view.
Other prominent figures in the former government often shared the populist view and, consequently, devoted considerable efforts to convince the United States that Pakistan is not a good ally. The vague and conflicting Afghan positions on Pakistan sent contradictory messages, which has had a negative impact on the morale of Afghan security forces.
The new government, on the other hand, seems to be exploring different strategies toward achieving understanding with other countries that could destabilize Afghanistan or help to rebuild the country. President Ghani is seeking to attract foreign investment including from Arab countries. Securing these investments requires stability.
The China Factor
To his credit, Karzai initiated the effort to bring China into the peace negotiations. Karzai did this in part to persuade Pakistan to cooperate in the peace talks. This policy has been re-energized by the unity government. The Chinese, who have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban, have apparently encouraged the Taliban to have direct talks with the Afghan government.
China has sizable investments in Afghanistan’s copper and oil sectors. The Aynak copper mine agreement alone is worth $3 billion. Given its broad and strategic stake in the country, China stands to benefit considerably from a lasting peace agreement. Afghanistan has sought to cement this interest by handing over Uyghur Muslim ethnic separatists to China.
Since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, two rivalries have pushed China and Pakistan closer together: the antagonism between India and Pakistan on the one side, and between India and China on the other.
By expanding its soft power in Afghanistan, Iran has secured its position as an indispensable partner. The Afghan relationship with Iran remains friendly despite disputes over water from the Hirmand river and Iran’s execution of Afghan citizens convicted of crimes including drug trafficking.
Unlike with Pakistan, Afghanistan has no territorial disputes with Iran. Iran has heavily invested in Afghan infrastructure, and it needs Afghan government cooperation in combating the drug trade, which has hit Iran very hard. Iran may have some reservations over Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan, which Tehran fears could lead to more influence by Pakistan’s patron, Saudi Arabia. However, Iran calculates that improving Afghan-Pakistani relations and relaxing international sanctions against Iran, assuming there is a nuclear deal, could revive plans for a so-called Peace pipeline bringing Iranian natural gas to Pakistan, a project that has been delayed many times. Iran hopes that India would ultimately participate in the project once sanctions no longer block foreign investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector.
Iran is also promoting the port of Chabahar in its Sistan and Baluchestan Province on the Gulf of Oman as a reliable outlet for trade to and from Afghanistan, Central Asia, and India. In addition, Iran hopes to provide access for land-locked Afghanistan to the port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. President Ghani has called improved trade access among Iran, Afghanistan, and India “of vital importance for Afghanistan.”
By negotiating with the Taliban, however, the Afghan unity government is risking its credibility among core supporters and Afghans who fear that reintegration of the Taliban would threaten the advances Afghanistan has achieved since 2002. Alienating core supporters would be particularly dangerous if peace talks fail to produce a lasting agreement.
Ghani-Abdullah: an Ideal Combination
Despite the bitterness of the last election and residual antagonism between their camps, Ghani and Abdullah—who are visiting Washington together this week—have worked in relative harmony. Ghani’s goal of improving the Pakistan-Afghan relationship complements Abdullah’s better relationship with India and Iran.
It is too soon to evaluate the prospects for the peace process. In New Delhi recently, Abdullah used a Persian proverb—“Two kings cannot remain in a territory”— in response to a question about his power sharing with Ghani. However, two kings who complement each other may have been the best outcome of last year’s disputed presidential elections.
Afghanistan’s problems with its neighbors are a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to creation of Pakistan in 1947. If in the past, the ethnic and tribal conflicts could be contained within the borders of one country, now they spread across them.
A good example is the civil strife in Iraq and Syria, which has contributed to the emergence of ISIS. Countries now understand that proxy conflicts can boomerang and contribute to domestic instability.
Even if a peace agreement with the Taliban is reached, the situation in Afghanistan is likely to remain volatile for some time. In this light, it is encouraging that the United States has decided to keep a relatively large military force in Afghanistan until the end of 2016.
On March 18, Matiullah Khan, the powerful police chief of Oruzgan who apparently was in Kabul on official business, was killed in a targeted suicide bombing. Meanwhile the spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihulla Mujadid, complained that the new Afghan government has increased torture of Taliban prisoners. Until and unless the peace talks lead to a meaningful solution, the cycle of violence will not stop.