MAPPING THE AFGHAN PEACE PROCESS THROUGH DOHA ROUNDS: PAKISTAN’S MEDIATION AND INTERPLAY OF REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL DYNAMICS
DR. Tehseen Nisar, Luiss Guido Carli University – 11 August 2021
In one of his most famous quotes in On War, Clausewitz, one of the landmark Strategists states that, “War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” Far too often, however, peace negotiations become the exact opposite: they become “a continuation of war by other means.” Some – or all sides – combine negotiating with further fighting, threats, and intimidation, or they use negotiations as a cover for different forms of active struggle. 1
This analogy can be fairly represented for the case study of Afghanistan. The current scheme of events in Afghanistan have shown an increasing propensity towards reaching a comprehensive solution to Afghanistan stalemate yet, it remains to be seen whether it will create a sufficiently stable and effective enough political system, guarantee levels of security, governance, economic progress, and rule of law to avoid new forms of conflict and create a successful state of Afghanistan.
2021 marks the twentieth anniversary since the beginning of the US war in Afghanistan and a critical juncture for the country. After reaching some diplomatic achievements in 2020 – such as the “US-Taliban Agreement” – Trump’s accelerated withdrawal of US troops and the concession to sit bilaterally with the Taliban effected the Intra-Afghan peace process. 2
The new geopolitical chessboard, however complicated, represents multiple power plays in the region. As events unfold, it will be very challenging yet, interesting to observe how the situation can work to the benefit of all as Afghanistan remains vital to the security and stability of South Asia.
What local and international challenges will the Afghan issue be forced to navigate in the short-term? Will regional powers play an increasingly more relevant role in the future? Which future should the Afghan people expect?
To answer these questions this paper is divided into three segments and will therefore address these three extremely vibrant dynamics:
- The Intra Afghan Internal Dynamic
- Regional and International Dynamic
- Conclusions and Recommendation
Besides these dimensions, some pertinent questions that will be addressed will be the following:
Retrospectively, as I write this paper the recurrent events in the Middle East and the Israeli attack on Gaza, consequentially calling for the Cease fire which became operational on 21st May, 2021, has left the impression that the American role in exercising control over hegemons in the Middle East was the first test case for the Biden administration.
The Biden administration as we have seen attempted to buy some time, revisiting the withdrawal timeline with the Taliban, extending it till September, 2021, which had made them refuse to attend the Istanbul Summit and for which they have so far not been easy to come to terms with. However, it is also believed that The U.S. virtually excluded a divided Afghan central government from the negotiating process. It set no clear conditions for a broad ceasefire or for reaching an actual peace settlement. It did not define how the negotiations would take place, and it seemed far more focused on establishing a clear date for U.S. withdrawal. Biden’s emphasis on Asian security has been well-exemplified by the nomination of Jacob Sullivan as his National Security Adviser. When working with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2013 to 2014, in fact, Sullivan was among the proponents of the well-known”Pivot to Asia”’3
Background to Opening Talks in Doha
In order to begin a short commentary of the above one must but take into account the events prior to and during the 2020 US presidential campaign when US former President Donald Trump had been able to rightfully claim notable diplomatic achievements in Afghanistan. The background for this was provided by the The ”multi-faceted” 2017 ”Strategy for South Asia” negotiated by the president’s advisers – and, above all, by former Defence Secretary James Mattis – which had subsequently borne the desired results. Within the two years, of the ‘”US-Taliban negotiations” originated the four main points: US troop withdrawal plan, The Taliban counter-terrorist guarantees, a comprehensive ceasefire, and a political roadmap. Secondly, after the two rounds of”Intra-Afghan talks” WHICH were held in Qatar in September 2020 and at the beginning of January 2021- the two warring sides – the Taliban and the “negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (IRoA team) – agreed on a three-page set of procedures for the talks4, albiet have yet to settle on an agenda even up until now.
Headways to the Doha Rounds: Taliban as Kick starters
The internal dynamic
Most important from the above process was that the Taliban were successful in kick-starting intra-Afghan talks on their terms, their strategy reflected to avoid discussing the most controversial issues upfront (such as women rights) and focussed instead on defining a long-term path to reconciliation: a transition government taking the country to new elections, transitional power sharing and institutional changes that would embed some Taliban power into the system, such as a Council of Ulema with substantial powers. During the preliminary talks in Doha, in which the Taliban managed to impose a heavily ‘Islamised’ framework. The Taliban’s calculus was that it would be hard for the Islamic parties that dominate much of the Afghan political spectrum to oppose such an agenda, even when such parties are not friendly with the Taliban. The political leadership of the Taliban supported the ‘Khalilzad process’, because it was designed to offer the Taliban an attractive deal. In fact, Khalilzad framed the process largely on the basis of a Pakistani proposal. The US consent to the Taliban’s rejection of the government also did not come out of the blue. In order to circumvent this hurdle and get talks with the Taliban started, US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad – who is of Afghan birth – first invented the expression of an “inclusive and effective national team” in early 2019. By now, this has morphed into the IRoA team. The reason for this type of negotiating team is also that domestic political opponents and a “third force” that coalesced around former President Hamed Karzai and did not choose sides in the 2019 election question the legitimacy of the Ghani government after two widely manipulated presidential elections without broadly accepted results (in 2014 and 2019)5.
Taliban sources consistently insisted that they would not talk to the Ghani administration, but only to an interim government that represented the whole Afghan political spectrum. This position has not really changed, as the Taliban agreed to talk to a Kabul delegation in Doha from 11 September 2020 only to define the terms of substantive talks. The Taliban’s team in Doha hinted that once an agreement on the framework of the talks was fully agreed, their first step would be to offer a trade-off6. In the Ghani-Abdullah political agreement that constitutes the legal basis of this arrangement, both electoral camps were given seats on the HCNR (High Council for National Reconciliation) and the negotiating team for Doha But The preliminary talks in Doha, which ended on 2 December 2020, highlighted divisions between Ghani’s four loyalists and the rest of the team. This suggests that the Taliban were right in assuming that with an interim government in place, they would be able to play on the differences between the Kabul factions. However, the domestic opposition was far from united7.
Vehement criticism to the US Deal
Strategy Experts like Anthony H. Cordesman, Chair in Strategy at Centre for Strategy and International Studies believe that although there were good reasons for the U.S. to set a deadline for departure and to force negotiations even if they would not succeed. Nearly two decades of effort had not created an Afghanistan that showed clear prospects for being able to stand on its own. The Afghan political system, which the U.S. helped create after 2001, was a deeply divided failure – split at the top by rival factions and divided throughout the country by power brokers and areas controlled by the Taliban8.One of the major criticisms of the deals have been in connection to the Vietnam War. Even by Vietnam War standards, the U.S. acted without having established the preconditions that could force the Taliban to adopt more than a cosmetic peace settlement. The U.S. had not created Afghan forces as effective as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), there was no equivalent to a massive bombing campaign that forced the Taliban to accept an end to the fighting, and the Taliban still controlled far more Afghan territory as the Viet Cong or North Vietnam ever controlled in South Vietnam. Moreover, there was not even the hollow shell of a successful election in Afghanistan. The Afghan central government could not achieve even a cosmetic unity, and much of the country which supposedly was under the control of the central government was actually controlled by local power brokers9.
The regional context
As from the point of view from what we have seen so far, in the case of Afghanistan, a crucial component of the conflict in Afghanistan would be a renewed emphasis on the regional context. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood includes Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China and India. Russia with its eminence on international stage supports China with its regional edge and geopolitical tilt towards Pakistan. Iran has stakes with the Shia Hazara and is also close to Northern Alliance historically. India has remained a strategic ally of the US and is also a major stake vis a vis its sphere of influence in the country. One can no longer also deny that Pakistan remains as an important broker for pace in the region and there would be no doubt that it also remains as one of the vital states upon which Afghanistan’s peace and stability depends. Infact, Peace in Afghanistan inexorably means peace in Pakistan. Meanwhile, as a responsible broker, Pakistan continued to maintain that the peace has to be a self- led and self -owned by Afghanistan and thus believes in the authenticity of the local actors and the peace process being totally grounded in reality of the Afghan political dynamic.
Most important is the Role of Regional Players including Russia, China, and India. According to Ameen Saikal, a Professor of Political Science at Australian National University, Russia has three main objectives in Afghanistan. One is to see a stable friendly Afghanistan, so that the former Soviet republics, especially those bordering Afghanistan – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – are not affected by Afghan instability. Secondly, Moscow is particularly concerned about preventing threats from Islamic extremist groups arising from Afghanistan and thirdly thus its policy is to fight such groups, whether in Chechnya or Afghanistan or Central Asia, where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) continues to be a potential threat. The rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS), with an estimated 1,000 activists – some from the ranks of the radical Taliban and others from outside Afghanistan – has increasingly caught Moscow’s attention10.
The Russians under President Putin have come to realise that the Taliban could be reckoned as partners and not merely as adversaries. The new thinking in Russia is thus Taliban are less of a danger than ISIL, given the former’s opposition to the latter, and that the Taliban are likely to have a role in the future of Afghanistan. It has found it expedient to establish links with receptive elements of the Taliban, who are in a turf war with ISIL operatives, as a means to counter ISIL. This is something that the Islamic Republic of Iran, nowadays a close friend of Russia, has also done for a similar purpose. In 2015, Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, stated that “the Taliban’s interest[s] objectively coincides with ours”11.
As far as China is concerned, Beijing’s diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan remain focussed on concerns about Islamists operating in China’s Xinjiang region and their alliance with the Taliban and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, Beijing is supporting Pakistan’s policy of fighting anti-state militants, especially those groups that could pose a threat to CPEC (the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor). China will reportedly train Afghan troops for deployment in the Wakhan Corridor, which links the Afghan province of Badakhshan with western China. It is also considering Afghanistan’s request for combat aircraft. These are the latest developments in a growing military relationship: Beijing has granted $70 million in military aid to Kabul over the past three years. China has also held meetings with Afghan Taliban representatives over the past years. The most important, in Beijing’s perspective, is to check Uighur radicalisation. China fears that oppressed Uighurs will increasingly depart for Afghanistan to receive militant training, and that fighters affiliated with both the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the militant Islamic State group will increasingly access western China via the Wakhan Corridor to carry out attacks. The main goal of Chinese investment in a ‘mountain brigade’ in the Wakhan Corridor is to block this two-way flow. This also explains why the majority of Chinese development spending in Afghanistan — $90m worth in September 2017 alone — is concentrated in Badakhshan, the proximate Afghan province12. Media reports suggest that part of China’s efforts to engage with the Afghan Taliban is to dispel the perception that the Chinese are anti-Muslim (apparently Taliban representatives were offered tours of a Chinese mosque). These interactions are aimed at staving off Beijing’s nightmare scenario of the Afghan Taliban formally joining forces with ETIM. Finally, growing Chinese influence in Afghanistan will help loosen the historic US grip over Kabul, something Beijing will increasingly seek as Sino-US tensions intensify13.
Afghanistan observers also say that Beijing is seeking Pakistan’s assistance not only to help create peace in Afghanistan, but also to keep regional rival India at bay. Since their independence from British rule, both India and Pakistan have sought to increase their clout in Afghanistan. In this context it is important to see where India stands with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s former Foreign Secretary Najmuddin Shiekh opines for Daily Dawn that India is in Afghanistan as a provider of aid which so far has amounted to about $2bn. Its presence is welcomed by the Afghan populace. As an active adversary to Pakistan, there is no doubt that India uses its presence, in tandem with anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan14 and thus Pakistan’s security agencies are rightly concerned, given that India has a long permeable border with Pakistan. Afghanistan relations and Afghan stability remains a long-sought-after Pakistani goal which least deserves to be put at risk for substantially rational foreign policy options.Another factor for Pakistan is the continued US pressure to do more in Afghanistan. Earlier in the beginning of 2018, The US president Donald Trump tweeted very aggressively and in fact his tone was very humiliating towards Pakistan. He not only asked Pakistan to do more but ordered the United States to end the US strategic assistance to Pakistan which had actually been materialised to Pakistan for its efforts for Peace in Afghanistan. The Majority of US assistance to Pakistan is from the Coalition Support Fund which is reimbursement to Pakistan for expenses already incurred and compensation for facilities made available to the coalition forces such as counter terrorism operations. The two main categories of aid are affected: foreign military financing (FMF), which funds purchases of U.S. military hardware, training and services, and coalition support funds (CSF), which reimburse Pakistan for counter-terrorism operations. Thus, the most annoying term for the Pakistani authorities is the US dictate to do more in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long rejected accusations that it fails to tackle the militants battling the Kabul government and U.S.-led foreign forces in Afghanistan, from sanctuaries on its side of the border.
Pakistan’s official position on Afghanistan has remained firm however, that it wants a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Towards this end, Pakistan has tried to offer good offices to facilitate a dialogue between the Americans and Taliban in order to pave a conciliation between the two major stakeholders of peace in Afghanistan.
While the risks to peace in Afghanistan are manifold including risks that pertain to the fears that once the U.S departs, the burden of dealing with Afghanistan will fall on the neighbours including Russia, Iran, China, Iran, and Pakistan. There is a huge possibility that in case of the civil war, if any there could be millions crossing the borders and repeating the similar happenings on 1990s. If the Taliban are able to dominate, the international community will also not be willing to engage much. In this situation, it also would clearly put huge responsibility on Afghans for their own destiny which is why it is incumbent on them to accept the reality they will have to live with in any case.
In addition, apart from the Taliban, the rise of the ISIS has also been a constant factor in Afghanistan’s complex political and security nomenclature. It is speculated that even Al- Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent can gather with ranks of the Taliban to form a bigger alliance as a counter to ISIL. This situation can lead to a very dangerous end where fears of political stability in the country can combine with risks of an onslaught from these terror organizations and non- state actors to fill the vacuum. Meanwhile, there had been speculations that the US was reluctant to follow an active role in Afghanistan even at the behest of the Biden Administration. In the face of the declining US military involvement in Afghanistan, especially from the end of 2014 when the US and its allies withdrew most of their troops from the country. The US drawdown, without Washington achieving its original goal of transforming Afghanistan into an effectively viable and secure state, has opened an important arena for competition between different regional powers, leading to claims of a new “great game”15.
- Anthony H. Cordesmen, Afghanistan: The Peace Negotiations Have Become an Extension of War by Other Means, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), October 28, 2020 Available at https://www.csis.org/analysis/afghanistan-peace-negotiations-have-become-extension-war-other-means
- Giuliano Battiston & Giulia Sciorati, The Afghan Peace Process after Trump: What comes next? Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale, January 26, 2021Available at https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/afghan-peace-process-after-trump-what-comes-next-29055
- Antonio Giustozzi, The Taliban and the peace process in Afghanistan, Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale (ISPI), January 26, 2021 Available at https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/taliban-and-peace-process-afghanistan-28979
- Amin Saikal, Afghanistan: A pawn in major power rivalry? April 16, 2017 Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2017/4/16/afghanistan-a-pawn-in-major-power-.rivalry#:~:text=Afghanistan%3A%20A%20pawn%20in%20major%20power%20rivalry%3F
- Najmuddin Shiekh, Ties with US and Afghanistan, August 6, 2018 Available at Dawn.com https://www.dawn.com/news/1425272