The Afghan End-Game Unfolds
What matters in Afghanistan isn’t just what is happening – through dialogue to end the war -- but how it is happening, through the increasing involvement of Afghanistan’s neighboring powers, making the ‘Intra-Afghan’ dialogue look like an externally sponsored event rather than a truly indigenous process at a time when the United States, the main sponsor of the war, is handicapped by what seems to be an unmoored and incompetent government in Washington, DC.
But then this is a war in its 18th year. Regional powers’ efforts to broker peace cannot be simply thrown under the table or viewed from the angle of selfish motives, although every state acts according to its national interest.
By now, all the major actors, both from inside and outside Afghanistan, have made clear what they are seeking. And, if any actor is missing from the big picture, it’s Kabul, which was, not so long ago, a ‘popularly elected government’ according to the US, that needed to lead the dialogue. Although Kabul has repeatedly asked for proper inclusion in the talks, the US, like other powers – China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran – has given no serious consideration to this demand due to the Taliban’s insistence on talking directly to the US, reinforcing the widely-held perception that Kabul lacks legitimacy.
The fact that elections in Afghanistan have been delayed due to mainly to palace intrigues in Kabul is only eroding the central govenment’s reputation as a serious stakeholder in the peace process. And although the Ghani government has been criticizing the talks and their exclusion and even threatened to reject the deal, it is unlikely that this will have a serious impact.
Big powers are backing this up with other forms of Afghan presence. That manifestation came a few weeks ago when Afghanistan’s major political opposition, including the former president Hamid Karzai and representatives from the northern alliance, gathered in Moscow to meet the Taliban representatives and discuss a peace plan.
The outcome of the two-day conference was highly successful in that it emphatically established that major political dispensations in Afghanistan are in favor of a US withdrawal, a demand that Kabul continues to be skeptical of because of the uncertainty it brings for the incumbent political elite’s own future in the post-conflict scenario.
Russia, of course, shares this enthusiasm for the US withdrawal, as do China, Pakistan and Iran, all of whom are, in one or way or the other, finding ways to increase their influence in Afghanistan in order to secure their respective interests.
While Russia’s main path of choice runs through leading the ‘Intra-Afghan’ dialogue—something the US was probably never going to be able to do on its own – China has been making headway through economic and security arrangements with Afghanistan. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of it is being done discreetly, as Asia Sentinel (https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/china-joins-great-game/) has reported since 2016.
For instance, the Chinese are reported to have developed a small military facility in Tajikistan, watching over Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor a few miles away.
And while the Chinese continue to deny reports of their military base inside Afghanistan, we now have an official confirmation of how China is already helping Afghanistan establish a mountain brigade in the country’s northern regions to help boost its counter-terrorism capacity.
This cooperation in establishing a brigade is apart from China’s willingness to train Afghan soldiers on the Chinese soil. And while China has denied that it will be sending its troops on a military base, an anonymous but official source had actually confirmed to South China Morning Post last year that China ‘may send its troops at some point in future.’
For Pakistan, there can't be better news than the increasing presence of China and Russia and the complete absence of India from the dialogue process, coupled with the fact that the dialogue process is ultimately likely to to bring the Afghan Taliban back to power, although the Taliban have themselves assured that they don’t seek to rule Afghanistan on their own or to the exclusion of other political players and ethnic groups.
What, however, remains a conundrum in the whole dialogue process is that while the US talks with the Taliban may end the US’s own war in Afghanistan, within this process, there is nothing that may end conflict within the country. For the US, therefore, it is imperative that it first bring Afghanistan’s various stakeholders together to forge peace.
Russia, as it stands, has done that and is in position to provide the missing brick in the edifice the US is trying to build. But the question is: would the US want to synchronize its own dialogue process with that of Russia and thus integrate the ‘Intra-Afghan’ dialogue with the dialogue between the U.S. and the Taliban?
While such synchronization could play a crucial role in terms of resolving both aspects of the conflict in Afghanistan, the US leadership continues to toy, despite the highest level of talks just beginning in Qatar this week, with ideas of withdrawal and/or “limited presence” in Afghanistan, implying that demilitarization might not take place or that the talks may not come to fruition.
In a nutshell, all of it basically comes down to what the US wants to do and how it wants to do it. But whatever it turns out to be, there is little gainsaying that—and many in Afghanistan agree – the imperative of ending the conflict is of as paramount importance, or even more, as ending the US war itself. For the US, the best way might be to really implement Donald Trump’s “regional approach” in a way that allows for a multi-dimensional solution to a multi-dimensional war through the inclusion of multiple actors.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel