What might cause the Afghan talks to fail?

Contrary to widespread reports, it won’t be sabotage from Tehran

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh 

With contentious peace talks between the US and the Taliban continuing and rifts growing in the US-backed National Unity Government, a new wild card has popped up in the growing perception Iran might try to sabotage the peace process and hurt US interests. Some reports even have declared Afghanistan a next ‘battleground’ between Iran and the US after Iraq and Syria. 

The logic: Iran has established relations with the Taliban and it might use these relations to influence the Taliban and coax them into continuing their fight against the US. Thus, the peace process would fail, and US President Donald Trump would fail to achieve his promise of ending the US’s ‘useless’ war, which has droned on for 17 years, killing an estimated 147,000 Afghans and 4,000 NATO military and contractor personnel, and making 6.3 million Afghans refugees. Afghanistan has held the depressing title of top global producer of refugees for 32 years.

However, Tehran’s relations with the Taliban aren’t and have never been strong enough to pursue a proxy war. Second, a US military exit, by all means, would serve Iranian interests far better than an endless US military presence in Afghanistan, Iran’s underbelly. Third, Iran’s major allies, Russia and China, have been working hard for the last few years to find a political solution of the war in order to pave the way for an eventual US military exit. 

Both Russia and China believe Afghanistan serves as a US strategic outpost in Asia as a strong military presence close to its strategic rival countries and they would like to see NATO forces gone. Iran very much shares this concern and would hardly go against its allies. 

On the other hand, Iran’s current policy, which its supreme leader has vowed to follow vigorously vis-à-vis the US presence in the Middle East, is very much about creating conditions in Iraq and Syria that might force the US out of the region; hence, the question: why would Iran want to sabotage the peace process in Afghanistan and keep the US involved when it is trying just the opposite in Iraq and Syria?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claims regarding Iranian intentions, therefore, do not make sense. The threat to Afghan peace talks, including ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue, comes not from Iran but from within Afghanistan. While it is very much possible that the US-Taliban talks may fail to achieve a peace deal once again, the question of what would happen after a peace deal has been achieved remains as big a challenge. Will the US be able to convince the Taliban to talk to Kabul?

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s extremely weak political standing notwithstanding, his allies and foes alike have come already come out and spoken against the handling of peace process. Abdullah Abdullah, the physician who is Ghani’s chief political rival and coalition partner, recently criticized Ghani for his unrealistic precondition demanding a cease-fire for talks with the Taliban. 

Abdullah was reported to have said, “Peace is not one person's monopoly, one person's wish – but it is a collective desire, and the people of Afghanistan have the right to take a position regarding the peace process.”

While Abdullah’s position reflects the increasing rift within the National Unity Government itself, it also shows the increasing desire within Afghanistan’s various political quarters, including opposition groups led by former president Hamid Karzai, for a greater role in peace talks with the Taliban. 

If the US pushes for ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue only between Taliban and Kabul led by Ghani, that would be perfect recipe for failure. It is not just Ghani’s opponents who would oppose such a move and thus prevent a broad political consensus, but the Taliban mainly who would refuse to entertain Ghani in his claim as the sole legitimate leader of Afghanistan.

What the Taliban think of Ghani is evident from their recent statements posted on their official website. Calling him a “stooge” and an opponent of peace, the Taliban said that “At a time when the negotiation process in Qatar has reached a decisive stage and the hopes of peace have rekindled in the hearts of our compatriots, the impotent ruler of Arg Palace (Ashraf Ghani) not only voiced his opposition to the negotiation process during an interview in Switzerland but also made other irresponsible remarks,” adding further that “the opposition and propaganda against peace by the treasonous stooges are their last-ditch efforts” to secure their interests. 

While it is clear that the Taliban would not sit with what they denigrate as a “stooge” and a “puppet” to negotiate the country’s political future, they are not averse to talking to “individuals and parties from the political class of our country who feel the pain of this nation and believe in a peaceful Afghanistan.”

Not only has Ghani failed to generate a broad political consensus involving his coalition partners and the opposition, but he also remains for the Taliban an illegitimat’ leader of the country. Therefore, any effort by the US to present Ghani as the ‘sole spokesperson’ would be counter-productive and sabotage the entire process, taking Afghanistan back to the square one. 

What can prevent this recipe of disaster from happening is a broad political and social representative committee that may involve Kabul but must not be led by Kabul or its officials that should negotiate with the Taliban. 

There is no doubt that today, after so much calamity, the demand for peace in Afghanistan is much stronger than the outcry for war. What needs to be done, if the relevant parties are sincere to end the war and establish peace, is to cultivate these voices of peace and let them lead the intra-Afghan dialogue. 

It is not impossible for that to happen. The Taliban made no objections when they met such groups in Moscow and Beijing. In fact, there were able to reach an agreed to agenda to follow. The US needs to capitalize on that to reach a genuine peace agreement. 

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel