President Trump’s recent decision to pull back 7000 troops, half the strength of total forces, indicates that the recent round of talks with Taliban in Abu Dhabi was ‘productive’ to put in words of chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad. The surprise announcement by the president also underlines that the US is now confident to deal with and move forward in post-conflict Afghanistan.
The world has seen many Afghan peace processes and efforts before. None really got off the blocks. But there is a general and unmistakable sense of hope this time that has been absent from the previous efforts. This was the first time that a high-level delegation representing Mullah Haibutullah Akhunzada, the Taliban chief, was present at the table along with representatives of Sirajuddin Haqqani and Quetta Shura, the two Pakistan backed groups. Also present were delegates from several political commissions from Taliban shura. Representation of Taliban doesn’t get better than this. Taliban is an amalgam of various tribal groups and not all vow their allegiance to a single source.
Also present at the meeting were main financial sponsors of Taliban – Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In fact getting Saudis directly on the table meant that they would be guaranteeing if the negotiations move towards settlement. Pakistan demonstrated their seriousness by bringing in Haqqanis and Quetta Shura. Saudis and the UAE were there to make sure that Taliban do not renegade and if they do no one will bankroll the Jihad. The alternatives to Saudis could be Chinese for Taliban if they decide to pull out of the settlement but it seems that, for now, China wants to play peace as a volatile region would be detrimental to its presence in Gwadar and on the so-called CPEC route.
Pakistan and Iran can’t financially support Jihad on their own and if they do the political and economic costs will be too huge for them. So it seems that Taliban understand this changing environment. This was the second round of talks and a proposal for a six-month temporary cease-fire was already on the table. Usually, the peace talks start from CBMs rather than cease-fire. The CBMs like prisoner swap and lifting of international sanctions were also discussed but Taliban also discussed the possible formation of a caretaker setup and who could represent them. Quite a distance in just two public rounds.
Taliban always maintained that they would never sit with Afghan government but a delegation of Afghan government was present just a stone throw away from the venue of the talks – at hand give their input on any proposal though they were not present at the table.
Certainly, Afghanistan is a land where promises and vows are the first thing to fall when the a wind starts blowing and in this case too, whatever would be discussed and put on the paper would matter little when the real test comes but this time round there are several factors that produced this diplomatic coup d’état. One, Pakistan needs the US and Afghanistan more than they need this unpredictable ally. The country is clearly not moving either east or west and no one wants to play the role of principal donor and mentor anymore – not the US not even China. Both are offering Pakistan a transactional relationship and in case of China the relationship is too one-sided. So the only possibility is to stick with the US in Afghan game and try to extract as much political and economic benefit in post-war Afghanistan as possible.
Moreover, Saudi involvement in the talks will also ensure that not only Taliban but Pakistan too doesn’t go stray because it could then lose a donor and would find itself virtually alone in the cold. Iran had the potential of playing spoiler but not anymore. Due to economic sanctions, political instability could set in that could tie its hands in any geo-political manoeuvres.
Having said all one must not forget that this is Afghanistan. A very important strategic piece of land where Superpowers always found themselves entangled willingly and unwillingly over the centuries. And this time round there is a new and unknown player in the neighbourhood – China. So don’t just start celebrating. – Ends