Despite recent talks, lasting peace remains a challenge in Afghanistan.
By agreeing to peace talks, the Taliban is showing that their demands are based on realistic, achievable goals. Its criticism of the Afghan Government being a ‘puppet regime’ has gained acceptance from multiple quarters. Hence, many other multilateral peace talks are going forward even in absence of representation from Afghan establishment. More importantly, almost all the regional actors, including the US, have reached a consensus on the Taliban being a political opposition and not a terrorist organisation. They fit the criteria of credible negotiators, enabling them a seat of prominence in ‘governing’ Afghanistan. Concurrently, Taliban is strong as ever and has the capacity to continue the war in case of failure of peace talks and inflict unacceptable level of violence. They know that US withdrawal of forces is no more a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Keeping the aforementioned factors in mind, the Taliban seems to have succeeded in portraying its resilience to an overt military campaign, and at the same time positioned itself as the pivotal force that needs to be taken into consideration if a lasting peace is to be achieved in Afghanistan. Finally, mounting pressure from refugees repatriated by Iran and Pakistan, budgetary deficit, fractured political establishment, increasing opium production and civil-military casualties and returning ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq are all weakening the central government’s position and strengthening Taliban.
Who’s governing Afghanistan?
Except India, no other nation is giving prominence to the present Afghan establishment. While regional actors have unequivocally announced support for an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ peace talk, subsequent attempts by previously the Karzai government and now President Ghani have met with little or no support. This view is further bolstered by the absence of Afghan official representatives from American and Russian peace initiatives. It is thus indicative of the fact that the present Afghan Government does not have any major role in deciding the future of their own country. Some of the regional players on multiple occasions have proved counterproductive thus sabotaging any prospects for credible talks with the Taliban. The current dispensation also remains divided on issues pertaining to Taliban and peace talks.
Furthermore, President Asharaf Ghani continues to be at odds with most of his other colleagues who have strong bases in different parts of the country and have tribal support. President Ghani by himself lacks the necessary muscle as well as political support, which may cushion a potential forceful expulsion from the political establishment.
Pakistan: Winner or Loser?
Given Islamabad’s role in the entire Afghan conundrum, it stands the best chance to gain from the existing situation. It remains likely to make the most of this ‘windfall gain’. Focused media and diplomatic campaigns magnify its role in bringing about an ‘amicable solution’ to the longstanding conflict. It is also expected to put the US administration in a catch 22 situation wherein failure to achieve a breakthrough will be directly attributed to Washington, and this in turn will result in continued violence in this war-torn country. If the peace talks go well, however, the Taliban controlled by Haqqani will play a prominent role in Southern Afghanistan, and warlords from Northern Afghanistan will rule their areas of influence. Entities like former President Karzai may take a seat of prominence in Kabul. Such a situation will be highly beneficial for Pakistan as it will have its influence and network in Afghanistan (so-called strategic depth) and also succeed in safeguarding its connectivity to Central Asia. The latter having rich economic dividends as a connection to regional markets holds potential to resuscitate its economy.
An Ultimate American Settlement
The primary objective of the current US administration is to declare the end of its role in ongoing wars in Syria and Afghanistan before the 2020 Presidential elections. Withdrawal of troops remains a secondary issue. The US continues to hedge its bets an agreement with the Taliban, which enables stationing its military assets in the country but no involvement in active combat operations. The aim of this would be to keep a watch on Taliban because US cannot rely on mere assurances that the space will not used by other terrorists’ organizations, and more importantly, to have a permanent military base at the juncture of four non-NATO nuclear powers. If this is achieved, the US may signal an end of the war in Afghanistan if not a ‘victory’.
Finally, successful talks are unlikely to translate in lasting peace for Afghanistan but is could result in a significantly-reduced financial burden, which has been inflicted on Washington for the past 17 years. The US wants to manage the proceedings from a third-party stance, which is likely to be a more ‘cost-effective’ yet credible option at the disposal of US policy makers.
The Chinese Interest
As the “One Belt One Road” initiative passes through the periphery of Afghanistan, China is concerned about the situation in the country. The central route of the project passes from Central Asia and the southern route from Pakistan (CPEC). China has invested approximately $115 BN in the neighboring countries of Afghanistan since 2007. The potential of Afghan instability spilling over cannot be denied if not contained. In the past, China, had refrained from engaging in Afghanistan, but that may not be the case in the future. It has been in touch with the Taliban since 2014, immediately after the announcement of OBOR and CPEC. If relative stability comes to Afghanistan, China will increase its economic activity to tap into the geopolitical location and natural resources. And, if the situation worsens, then it has to intervene to contain this conflict within the Afghan borders.
India: With or without
India is concerned about Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and this sentiment is reciprocated by Islamabad. On one hand, India seeks to capitalise on the goodwill which it has earned in the last two decades by investing in developmental projects and increasing people to people contact; while Pakistan has invested in keeping Taliban afloat. Even in a scenario involving India dealing with the Taliban for settlement, it is indirectly talking to Pakistan. Hence, Pakistan and India have to come to the negotiation table to share a space in Afghanistan. Since, Pakistan needs access to regional markets and its major ally China wants to safeguard its investments in those markets. This could force Pakistan to share space with India.
Improving India-US relations in the Indo-Pacific can give some advantage for India in safeguarding its national interest in Afghanistan. India was an important stopover for Ambassador Zalmay Khalilazad while he was traveling in the region. The Afghan peace process was also on the agenda of 2+2 dialogue between India and US. India may not be seen on the forefront of the peace talks with the Taliban in any peace initiatives but there are other actors such as leaders from the former Northern Alliance, US and Iran who might consider the Indian interest as important as any other regional players.
Overall, uncertainty seems the foreseeable future as long as other actors keep pushing for respective self-serving motives and objectives. However, by initiating peace talks, the US and other regional actors have shown interest in trying to end the armed political opposition of Taliban. Once the Taliban joins the political establishment, on whatever conditions, it would be easier for regional actors to label other armed groups as terrorists. This would lead to partial peace which can be converted into a perpetual peace by eliminating the remaining terrorist groups and integrating of Afghanistan into a regional connectivity network for economic stability.