Last month, Moscow hosted a peace conference on Afghanistan and provided an opportunity for the Taliban to participate at the international level. The Afghan government did not participate in this conference officially, although the country’s High Peace Council, first established in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban, sent a delegation.
The parallel processes indicate the lack of regional consensus on Afghanistan’s future, along with an entry into a new phase of regional and international disagreements.
This parallel development follows an order by US President Donald Trump in July for direct peace talks with the Taliban. Trump’s envoy to lead the talks, diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, met members of the Taliban in Qatar in October, but the Afghan government was neither consulted nor informed. Khalilzad met with a Taliban representative in Qatar again with a proposal of an interim government under a neutral leadership to pave the way for a further intra-Afghan agreement.
The Moscow-led and US-led processes contradict what has been called as the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” process for years. More importantly, the two separate initiatives are not compatible with each other, indicating growing disagreements and fragmentations between the great powers and regional countries.
The Americans want the talks to deliver a quick result. Russia, however, is seeking to consolidate its regional influence. And the meantime, the Taliban has intensified its assaults inside the country, with massive attacks on the central highland in Hazarajat as the most recent example.
All this leaves a question: how can peace talks with the Taliban lead to a durable peace when there is no domestic or regional consensus?
Contradicting peace ideas
Since 2009, the Americans and Karzai government started overt and covert talks with the Taliban, yet with different agendas. For example, a Taliban representative, Tayeb Agha, and senior officials from the US Department of State held a series of secret talks in Germany and Qatar in 2011. As a result, the Taliban opened a political office in Doha in 2013. Meanwhile, this encouraged other regional actors such as Iran and Russia to establish contact with the Taliban.
Jump forward to last month, when Khalilzad visited Pakistan and some Gulf States but is yet to meet with the Iranians and Russians to build a broader regional consensus for peace. The hostile relations between the US and Iran and contention between the US and Russia over Syria and Ukraine has only served to undermine any cooperation in Afghanistan.
The problem is that war in Afghanistan is deeply rooted in broad regional problems. Any attempt to reach peace without involving regional stakeholders won’t be durable. In particular, there needs to be consensus on how to deal with Pakistan and the Taliban’s bases in the country.
In August 2017, Trump announced his South Asia strategy to put more pressure on Pakistan, but this did not change Pakistan policy. In fact, the rush for a short-term gain through direct negotiations with the Taliban renders Trump’s South Asia strategy ineffective.
Pakistan believes the US will leave Afghanistan soon and, therefore, sees no point in changing its policy of supporting the Taliban and providing sanctuary. It is now clear that the Taliban were never entirely defeated after 2001; they simply relocated to Pakistan and have been protected as a strategic asset to counter India and in the political make-up of Afghanistan in the years that have followed.
Concerns and consequences
In the 1990s, when the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan, this allowed other regional countries to establish influence, with support for different military factions driving the country further to ruin. The format for Moscow’s peace talks appears to invite a similar outcome, with other regional countries seeing an opportunity for influence. It is almost certain that a US withdrawal would send a similar signal and allow further influence peddling, and it will alter the situation inside Afghanistan quickly.
Likewise, without an internal consensus for peace, it would be difficult to prevent a new civil war. Fundamental concerns such as women rights, freedom of speech, and minorities’ rights, are still to be adequately addressed in Afghanistan. This leaves legitimate concerns around Trump’s order of direct talks with the Taliban.
The parallel processes indicate the lack of regional consensus on Afghanistan’s future, along with an entry into a new phase of regional and international disagreements. In this situation, different powers want to enhance their bargaining position by contacting groups such as the Taliban, rather than supporting unified efforts for a durable peace. Instead, it is vital to unify the efforts to enhance the Afghan government legitimacy and position in the peace talks.
Otherwise, the parallel initiatives only serve to make finding peace more difficult, while legitimising the Taliban and intensifying violence. In this situation, any premature withdrawal of US forces as a precondition for peace agreement for a quick and short-term gain will be a disaster.