by Giorgio Cafiero
On October 16, American, Afghan, Chinese, and Pakistani diplomats met to discuss the war in Afghanistan for the first time since the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG)’s holding of talks in Islamabad last year. Per the US State Department’s request, the meeting took place in Oman. Over the past several decades, Muscat has emerged as a unique platform for diplomatic engagement between various actors with opposing interests and competing agendas throughout the Muslim world’s war zones, including Syria and Yemen in recent years.
Launched in January 2016, the QCG was to utilize its members’ influence over Kabul and Taliban fighters to bring both sides to the roundtable. Yet the US military’s killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in Pakistan’s Baluchistan in May 2016 led to a breakdown in talks following the fifth session. Islamabad saw the killing as undermining the peace process. Since last year, heightened tension in Afghan-Pakistani relations, with Kabul accusing Islamabad of using the Taliban as a proxy, have also hindered the QCG’s ability to make substantial progress.
Oman hosted but did not participate in the QCG’s latest meeting, which is a small, albeit important, step in advancing a dialogue between the US and Pakistan on the Afghan file. Omani efforts to defuse tension in US-Pakistan relations are not new. In February 2011, one month after CIA contractor Raymond Davis’s arrest, US and Pakistani officials met for talks in Oman to address the crisis and other issues plaguing bilateral relations, particularly the war in Afghanistan.
Despite tensions between the Trump administration and Pakistan, the recent meeting of American officials and their Pakistani counterparts in Muscat suggests that the two countries could productively address their differences. Another hopeful sign came on October 11 when the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network released US citizen Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian spouse, Joshua Boyle, after holding both captive for five years. As Islamabad played a pivotal role in their release, Trump stated that “the Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes.”
According to experts such as Miagul Wasiq, Pakistan’s leadership has the leverage to get the Taliban to the roundtable by forcing the group to stop using Pakistani cities such as Peshawar, Karachi, and Quetta for their activities. US officials, in pointing their fingers at Islamabad, have made the same argument that Pakistan must to do more to decrease the Taliban’s spilling of blood in Afghanistan. Although Pakistan’s actual degree of leverage over the Taliban is debatable, any advancement of the peace process in Afghanistan will require factoring Pakistan’s interests into account. These interests include its perception of India as a graver threat, leading Islamabad to hedge its bets by maintaining relations with the Taliban. Unquestionably, India’s role in Afghanistan will add new layers of complexity to Washington-Islamabad relations.
The Taliban’s relevance in Afghanistan is growing as it becomes more ethnically diverse and politically influential. Meanwhile the Trump administration and the Kabul government are putting pressure on Qatar to eject the Taliban office from Doha. Both developments have made the Taliban increasingly opposed to engaging with the QCG process. Based on the calculation that continued fighting, not diplomacy, will best advance the Taliban’s interests until NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the group unleashed a series of deadly attacks only days after the QCG’s meeting in Oman. This violence sent a message that the Taliban is not interested in diplomatic engagement, at least not at the current juncture as the Afghan conflict intensifies.
As the Taliban controls, or at minimum possesses substantial influence in, 40 percent of Afghan territory and seizes more land through continued insurgency, any roundtable talks will have to include the group. Although inclusion could legitimize a regime guilty of grave human rights abuses, parties involved in the conflict must be pragmatic and accept that without the Taliban participating in the QCG’s talks (the group denies having received an invitation to last month’s meeting in Muscat) no diplomatic breakthrough in Afghanistan can be expected.
Given all the factors that dim the prospects for any diplomatic breakthrough at the roundtable, why is Oman hosting talks aimed at bringing peace to Afghanistan? Oman believes that facilitating diplomatic engagement is always the most morally and strategically sound foreign policy. As one Omani official explained in reference to the October 16 meeting: “It is another peace talk. Nothing is guaranteed. It all depends on the commitments of all parties to resolve the problems. But we remain optimistic.”
Just as Oman began hosting talks on the Iranian nuclear file between diplomats from Washington and Tehran nearly five years before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s passage in 2015, the Omanis are realistic about how successful diplomatic efforts require extensive time and patience.
A challenge for Oman will be adjusting to the new realities of US foreign policy shaped by the Trump administration’s increasingly anti-diplomatic approach to resolving armed conflicts such as Afghanistan’s. It’s not clear yet whether the Trump administration will view Oman as a valuable diplomatic backchannel between the parties involved in Afghanistan as the country’s 17-year-old war heats up.
Photo: Quadrilateral Coordination Group